Marcus Faleti, a 58-year-old homeless man who was a fixture in Wicker Park's namesake park, died early Sunday from hypothermia and alcoholism, a lethal mix that the Nigerian man known by many had vowed to fight in past winters.
Faleti was born in Nigeria and came to Chicago 24 years ago, according to Nick Nixon, who became friends with Faleti in 1992 when they were working as day laborers on the city's northwest side.
Often seen sitting on a bench reading the Sun-Times or Wall Street Journal, or pushing his shopping cart overflowing with scavenged items through the park, Faleti died at 12:09 a.m. Jan. 1 at Presence St. Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, according to a spokeswoman for the Cook County Medical Examiner.
The primary cause of Faleti's death, which was ruled an accident, was hypothermia, and the secondary factor was alcoholism, said the spokeswoman, Becky Schlikerman.
The temperature registered at O'Hare Airport around the time of his death was about 24 degrees, with a windchill of 18 degrees.
"He was a person, he was somebody. He will be missed," Nixon said, adding that there was "something really positive about" Faleti that attracted others to him.
"He was a good influence on everyone. Everyone liked him. He was a big newspaper reader and a very smart man," Nixon said.
Faleti's only immediate family is believed to be an adult daughter who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nixon said he is hoping he can get access to Faleti's flip phone, which is at the morgue, in order to contact her.
Clare Rodriguez, a Chicago Park District supervisor at Wicker Park, 1425 N. Damen Ave., was unable to comment on Faleti's death on behalf of her employer, but shared her personal experiences.
"Marcus was a part of the fabric of this park. I could always count on him to be honest with me and to protect the interests of Wicker [Park]. He was a kind man and an icon of Wicker’s grounds," Rodriguez said.
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) knew Faleti for more than 10 years.
"I will miss our talks on the bench in Wicker Park. He was a smart man and well read and yet another example of why our country needs to focus on the issue of substance addiction," Moreno said.
During the brutally cold 2014 winter, Faleti had refused to go to a homeless shelter but Moreno eventually convinced Faleti to stay indoors after securing a spot for him at a shelter in Humboldt Park.
"He was most concerned about his shopping cart because he could not bring it. I stored it in my garage until he returned [to the park]," Moreno said.
Though the home address for Faleti given to the hospital upon his admission was listed as the Franciscan Outreach Shelter, 1645 W. LeMoyne Street, that facility is a daytime treatment center and soup kitchen and not an overnight shelter.
Ed Jacob, executive director of Franciscan Outreach Association, said the nonprofit group's records show Faleti had been eating at the soup kitchen and receiving daytime case management services since 2008.
"It makes me realize we’ve got more work to do, that life is fragile — especially for the guests of Franciscan Outreach," Jacob said of Faleti's death.
In a written statement, Jacob said that the Franciscan Outreach Association community is "deeply saddened" by Faleti's passing.
"Although he did not have a place to call home, Marcus had the love of family and friends. He will be missed by all of us at Franciscan Outreach," Jacob said.
Faleti's most permanent home was a patch of grass behind A.N. Pritzker School, 2009 W. Schiller St., near the park, which he left every morning by 6:30 a.m.
Dr. Joenile Albert-Reese, principal of A.N. Pritzker School, called Faletti's death "an unfortunate loss for the school community."
"He was like our own personal angel residing, resting, and looking over Pritzker School when we were all at home. On several occasions he would share information about incidents that occurred here on school property over night and often times he'd report having to run wayward teens of ill-repute away from the school's primary play lot," Albert-Reese said. "We wish him God's speed for his transition and eternal peace."
Funeral arrangements are pending. Moreno said he is considering starting a campaign to provide a service and burial for Faleti if Faleti's daughter is unable to be reached.