Chicago Tribune, Dahleen Glanton: Chicago’s homeless need housing, not handouts

By Dahleen Glanton, columnist

This is hard to admit, but I have not always been empathetic toward the homeless people who live under the viaducts.

During the summer in Uptown, I would see them lounging on the grass or seated in lounge chairs while hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on a barbecue grill nearby. I convinced myself that this was where they wanted to be, carefree and without responsibility. That’s what I wanted to believe.

Then winter came. And the reality of what it means to be homeless, particularly in Chicago, was suddenly clear. I could not have been more wrong.

At the end of the season, the snow came, dumping up to 10 inches on the Chicago area Monday and Tuesday. Temperatures along the lakefront dipped below freezing and were expected to drop even lower in the coming days.

Monday evening, I drove past the homeless encampment underneath the Lake Shore Drive bridge at Lawrence Avenue once again. This time, it looked so different — damp and littered with snow.

Continue reading Chicago Tribune, Dahleen Glanton: Chicago’s homeless need housing, not handouts

WBEZ: Trump budget could hit Illinois’ homeless, domestic-violence agencies with ‘double-whammy’

By Dan Weissmann

Local agencies that combat homelessness and domestic violence face a “double-whammy” of government funding cuts.

For almost two years, the agencies have seen their state funding reduced and interrupted because of the ongoing budget mess in Springfield.

Now, the Trump administration may be targeting some of their federal support. The Washington Post reported that a draft of Trump’s budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development would eliminate a program called the Community Development Block Grant.

The program sends about $43 million to Chicago non-profits, including agencies whose services have been especially hard-hit by the state’s failure to enact a budget since June 2015.

Here is how cuts to the Community Development Block Grant could play out in Illinois.

Homeless services

This year, that federal program sends $9 million to Chicago agencies that serve the homeless.

“These providers are already so devastated because of the state,” said Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “Everyone’s trying to dig themselves out of these terrible holes. If they got a $9 million cut, it would be awful.”

Most homeless-service programs got no state funding at all for the first 12 months of the state budget impasse. A stopgap budget for the second half of 2016 freed up some funds, but that ended on Jan. 1.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence groups like Apha Ghar have been in the same boat as homeless-service agencies. Neha Gill, who runs the domestic-violence agency, said she has gotten no state funds since November. Now, some federal funds may be in danger.

“I worry about what that means, if we have this double-whammy,” she said.

Even before the state’s budget mess, she was already trying to make the group less dependent on government money. Gill said she had enough success in chasing big donations from wealthy private donors that government now provides only about half of the agency’s funding.

“But, half the funding for an agency like ours is still a lot of funding,” she said. “When you’re thinking about the next 25 years for the organization, individuals can’t really sustain it in the way that government has.”

WBEZ 91.5: Out in the cold – where do Chicago’s homeless go in the winter?

 

Click image for an interactive experience

 

By Odette Yousef

Jake Riley has lived in Chicago for seven winters, and every year, come Halloween time, he notices something. “Nobody is outside, including homeless people,” says the Edgewater resident.

So he came to Curious City with this question: “Where do all the homeless people in Chicago go during the wintertime?”

Riley’s guess is that in the winter, people stay in homeless shelters.

“But then my question would be, well, why can’t those shelters help people all the time?” he says.

For help with Jake’s question, we turned to someone who was homeless in the city for three years. Fifty-nine-year-old Bryant Cunningham used to have a job and his own apartment, but he lost both around 2013 after his health took a turn for the worse and left him unable to work.

“I had — in a 3-month period — four heart attacks,” says Cunningham. “When I got out, it was a little hard to get back in the saddle. I got behind in the bills.”

One of those bills was his rent, and Cunningham lost his apartment.

Cunningham can’t speak to every single type of place that homeless people stay in the winter. The options are numerous, and everyone makes decisions based on personal circumstances.

But after talking with Cunningham, homeless advocates and social service providers, we can profile the most common places homeless Chicagoans stay during the winter. Each, it turns out, offers pros and cons when it comes to comfort, convenience, safety and dignity.

“Doubling up”

The first thing that Cunningham did after he lost his apartment was move in with his daughter and son-in-law. “Doubling up,” as it’s often called, affords the comfort of being indoors with familiar people. And, according to one expert, this option may be more available in the cold season than in warm ones.

“When it’s colder there might be more willingness … to open [a home] up to someone who typically might be on the streets,” says Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

But prolonged living in close quarters can lead to tension. That’s what happened with Cunningham, who says it became difficult to live under the rules of his relatives.

For some, tolerance for these potentially awkward situations or strained relations may be higher when it’s freezing outside and they lack alternatives. But when the weather warms, some people may prefer to leave for other options.

As for Cunningham, he eventually decided he didn’t want to risk damaging his relationship with his daughter by staying too long. “After about a year or so, I said OK, before I get to a point where we get into it, because I love my daughter profusely, I said I’m just going to go head on.”

Bryant Cunningham, a former bus driver, lived without a home on-and-off for three years, after a series of heart attacks left him unable to work. (WBEZ/Maggie Sivit)

The Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’

After he left his daughter’s place, Cunningham tried living with a friend, but left after tensions arose there, too. To stay out of the cold, Cunningham spent a couple of weeks riding the CTA Red and Blue Lines at nights, from about 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.

He says that riding the ‘L’ through the night meant having to get off and re-board over and over again. The constant on-and-off also meant that a night on the trains did not make for a proper night’s sleep. Cunningham says, at best, he only caught about 45 minutes to an hour of rest at a time.

Cunningham adds that CTA personnel go after people who appear to be staying on the trains all night.

“It’s just like a game of checkers,” he says. “You never want to get to the very end of the line. [You want to get off] either one or two stops before the end.”

Cunningham says that when he slept on the ‘L’ all night, he had to look out for security guards. (WBEZ/Maggie Sivit)

 

In addition to providing an indoor, warm space during cold nights, the presence of other people on the ‘L’ can provide a measure of security.

But in the deepest hours of the night, when few people are riding the train, Cunningham says he worried about his safety and protecting his personal belongings. “If you sleep, make sure you have your back to the side seats at the furthest end in the corner with your bag covered, and your hands tucked over your bag,” he advises. “So if they had to go in your bag they have to tug it and then they will wake you up.”

Single Room Occupancy Hotels

Single room occupancy hotels offer room rentals for a month at a time. A few SROs in Chicago offer overnight or weekly rates, as well, though available units in these buildings can be hard to get. Monthly rates often fall between $350 to $800, and daily rates hover around $50. SROs often only rent to single individuals; they’re rarely options for people with partners or families.

Cunningham only stayed once at a SRO hotel. He mostly recalls the discomfort of having to go up and down stairs with his bad knees, because the building lacked an elevator. Some SROs are old and poorly-maintained, leading to complaints of crumbling infrastructure and bedbugs. Still, depending on one’s income status, unit availability and temperatures outside, SROs may be an acceptable option in the winter.

But it’s an option that may be declining. In recent years, several SROs in gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods have changed ownership and been converted to mostly market-rate housing. In other cases, community groups purchased an SRO. Though the groups are often committed to preserving affordable housing, the rehabs sometimes reduced the overall number of available units.

Public libraries

In addition to strategizing where to spend his nights, Cunningham also had to figure out where to go to stay warm during the daytime. Even if he happened to be staying at a shelter, it often didn’t allow guests to stay indoors between wake-up time and evening curfew. He says it was a challenge to find places that he could, as he put it, “kill the hours” without looking conspicuous or getting kicked out.

To stay warm during the daytime, Cunningham spent time at the Harold Washington Library, reading books and attending cultural events. (WBEZ/Maggie Sivit)

 

Cunningham’s favorite place to spend the day was the Harold Washington Library, and he spent a lot of time there. “From 9:30 [a.m.] to 9 o’clock [p.m.], Monday through Friday,” he says. And sometimes weekends too.

His favorite floors were where he could find instructional books on drawing cartoons, and catch occasional guest lectures and cultural performances. The library also offered Cunningham internet access on public computers, allowing him to catch up on current events and find information about public benefits he needed.

But libraries can also be unfriendly to homeless people. Cunningham says homeless people are often kicked out if they are found to be sleeping, so it was important to know a few tricks.

“You put the book (up) like you’re reading. … Or, you wear sunglasses while you’re reading,” he says. “[You] just have to make sure that the book is not upside down when you fall asleep.”

Stores, restaurants, etc.

Restaurants, coffee shops and stores also offer a warm place to duck into, especially on bitterly cold nights when libraries are mostly closed.

At some private establishments, Cunningham says staff are not welcoming to homeless people or anyone who appears to be settling in for a prolonged stay. Over time, Cunningham developed a detailed mental map of which restaurants and coffee shops were hospitable to homeless people, and would allow them to sit and nurse a coffee for hours at a time.

“McDonalds … Burger King,” he rattles off. “There’s a restaurant on Canal and Roosevelt called the White Palace. It’s been there a lot of years, and it’s open 24 hours.”

One of Cunningham’s frequent places was the Dunkin Donuts kitty-corner from the Harold Washington Library, where he developed an early morning routine. “Coffee, couple wraps, corner seat, and eat very, very slowly,” says Cunningham. He often sat at a table tucked way in the back where he was least likely to be disturbed or noticed.

On especially cold days, Cunningham would frequent the Dunkin Donuts near State and Van Buren to warm up with a hot cup of coffee. (WBEZ/Maggie Sivit)

 

However, Cunningham says he would only try this option if he felt his hygiene was up to par; he didn’t want attention from the staff or other patrons. And, of course, Cunningham notes that restaurants and coffee shops were only an option when he could spare a couple of dollars to buy a coffee, which he didn’t always have.

City warming centers

On the coldest of days, when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the City of Chicago allows people to visit its six warming centers. Most are open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. Chicago police stations and hospitals also allow individuals to sit in lobbies or waiting rooms. In general, these facilities will call a mobile van outreach program to pick up and transport people to homeless shelters to stay overnight.

Cunningham says the wait for the outreach van can be long. He recalled going to the Grand Crossing Police Station near 71st Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue. Staff called the mobile outreach van to pick him up and take him to a shelter. “I was sitting in the lobby, hugging a heater from 8 p.m.‘til about 3 or 4 in the morning,” he remembers. “And I just got tired and said, ‘Well, look, I’m going to go back to the ‘L’ because this is just madness.’”

Tent cities

Of course, some people manage to live outside even through cold winters. Cunningham didn’t try this.

“I don’t do outside, and I don’t do the camping thing,” he says.

Constant exposure to cold weather, uncertainty about one’s own safety and the security of one’s personal belongings can take a mental and physical toll. But depending on one’s health and equipment, this option may be preferable to others.

So-called “tent cities,” where homeless people form encampments under highways or in parks, have become increasingly visible in Chicago during recent years. For many who choose this living arrangement, it offers a deep sense of community that other options lack. They share resources, donations and help to protect each other against outsiders or the elements. Many people who live outdoors also say it offers them complete autonomy over their lifestyle and schedule, which they would lose if they were to go to a homeless shelter.

Shelters

Shelters are perhaps what most people, including our question asker, think of when they consider where someone without a home might stay.

Cunningham preferred to stay in shelters during the winter when he lacked other indoor options. He says shelters offered him a better sleep than CTA trains.

“You got your mats, your sheets, your blankets,” he explains.

Homeless shelters provide people food and a place to sleep. However, many choose to leave once the weather gets warm. (WBEZ/Paula Friedrich)

 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Chicago had 5,469 shelter beds available year-round in 2016. In general, that’s enough shelter beds to meet demand.

But on the coldest nights, the shelter system in Chicago does expand capacity. Lydia Stazen Michael, Vice President of Communications at All Chicago, says that on frigid nights, capacity may increase by 500 hundred spaces, allowing people to stay in hallways, or in shelter cafeterias where tables are cleared away to open floor space.

“It’s not great space,” she explains. “It’s like mats on the floor.” She says they do it because they won’t turn people away when it is dangerously cold outside.

Let’s return to the second part of Jake’s question: If shelters in Chicago have this expanded capacity in the winter, why don’t they house homeless people year round?

“The demand just goes down in the warmer weather,” says Stazen Michael. In other words, homeless people opt to go elsewhere when the weather gets warmer, perhaps because shelters can have so many downsides.

Cunningham says one of those downsides involves restrictions on where he and others could be during the daytime. At one shelter at which Cunningham stayed, he says staff were concerned that neighbors would complain about the shelter becoming a neighborhood nuisance if people loitered close by.

“They didn’t like you hanging in the two-block radius where the shelters and stuff were,” he says. “So you had to move around.”

Another common restriction at shelters is curfews. If an individual doesn’t make it back to the shelter by, say, 6:45 p.m., he or she may lose a spot. Additionally, several places have sobriety rules, requiring guests to stay clean during their time at the shelter.

Cunningham says that at one privately-run shelter, he was uncomfortable with a requirement to participate in religious activities in order to receive meals; “If you didn’t participate in sermons … they locked the door until after dinner.”

Many homeless people report of bed bugs at some shelters. They also fear having their personal possessions stolen.

The most common concern is that some shelters feel chaotic and unsafe. They can be like tinder boxes: communal living arrangements for groups of people who sometimes are dealing with major life stressors such as drug dependency and mental health challenges — in addition to unstable housing. One homeless services worker says that, in the worst cases, there are instances of physical fights and sexual abuse.

So to answer Jakes question: Shelters can be rough places to stay, and while many people use them to escape low temperatures in the winter, they choose to leave once the weather turns milder. Simply expanding capacity year-round would not necessarily solve homelessness in Chicago.

For Cunningham, the answer to homelessness was income. After years of waiting to receive federal disability benefits, he finally started getting those checks late last year. With that income, he qualified for a two-year subsidized housing program in a South Shore neighborhood. With a stable roof over his head, Cunningham looks forward to starting a job training program soon and working.

Cunningham says the key to finding a solution is to know that each person is unique.

“We’re all homeless for different reasons. Some have medical reasons, mental reasons,” he says. “So, there’s really no blanket answer to fix it without finding each individual that’s homeless, figure out how he or she got that way, and that’s about the best answer I can give you.”

More about our questioner

Courtesy of Jake Riley

Jake Riley is a buyer for a lighting company in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. He moved to Chicago from Nashville, Tennessee, seven years ago and lives in the Edgewater neighborhood.

“I live right next to the Red Line, the Thorndale station,” he says, explaining that most of his observations about the city come when he’s getting around on foot or by public transit.

Now that he’s heard about Cunningham’s experiences navigating winters without a home, Riley says he appreciates the reminder that not all homeless people are the same.

“It’s easy to not think like that, (and to think) that everyone is in the same boat and there’s a solution for all,” he says, “and there’s not.”

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Local lawyers fight Trump’s policies

By Emily Donovan, Law Bulletin staff writer

Friday at noon, as other Loop workers took lunch breaks in the warm, rare mid-February sun, a criminal-defense attorney rallied a crowd of more than 150 in Federal Plaza, across from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

“Whose court is this?” Molly E. Armour asked into a megaphone.

“Our court!” the crowd chanted.

Chicago was one of 17 cities across the nation where the National Lawyers Guild organized hourlong rallies near courthouses. These rallies were in support of the General Strike, a move to protest President Donald Trump by coordinating strike actions across the nation.

“As we saw with all of the people who answered the call to go to O’Hare [to aid detainees of Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 travel ban], there are lawyers in our community who share these values but find themselves siloed in their work and don’t necessarily work for traditional legal aid organizations or volunteer regularly with these types of groups,” Armour said. “There are opportunities for them and we are here to help organize and work together on these issues that we have already identified and that we know are coming in these dangerous times ahead.”

Armour, owner of the Law Office of Molly Armour and the Midwest regional vice president of the guild, said the guild started discussing rallies of lawyers about two weeks earlier and that a “legal strike” in Chicago was brainstormed a week beforehand.

“As you can probably hear out your window every day, there are marches happening in the streets all the time and today we’re just going to be saying that we are a part of this community and we have certain skills that we will marshal — our legal skills — in service of the movement,” Armour said.

Standing behind banners advertising the Chicago guild and other social justice legal organizations, a midsized crowd held signs saying “silence = compliance,” “There are no ‘so-called’ judges in a Democracy!” and “Our so-called president must respect the judicial system.”

Shortly after noon, a larger crowd of protesters joined — including several people waving antifascist signs, several holding anti-Trump signs, one man beating a drum, someone blowing what sounded like a vuvuzela horn, one person wearing a “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt and another wearing a pink pussy hat like those seen at last month’s Women’s March — and Armour turned on the megaphone.

The rally was co-sponsored by 22 other organizations that Armour described as having “a long-standing history of being there for movements.” They work in issues like immigration, mass incarceration, homelessness and community activism and included the People’s Law Office, Community Activism Law Alliance, the Uptown People’s Law Center, The John Marshall Law School student chapter of the American Constitution Society, Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Many speakers, like Max Michael Suchan, the mass defense coordinator at the Chicago guild and coordinator of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, asked attorneys to volunteer and get involved with the issues.

“We’re going to have increased need,” Suchan said. “As this administration ramps up its efforts, we know that resistance will increase as well. We are going to be there and we need you to be there with us.”

Speakers celebrated the increase in legal volunteering they’ve seen since the Trump administration took place.

Lam Nguyen Ho, founder and executive director of the Community Activism Law Alliance, said lawyers must unite with activists to offer their legal services in the way the activists need.

“Over the last two months, we haven’t been prouder and happier about the legal field because of all the lawyers who are recognizing that they have to work with communities,” Ho said. “All the over 1,400 lawyers who ran to O’Hare airport to join the protestors, to work with the people on the ground, to make sure that as lawyers we’re using our tools as a part of a much larger toolbox for social change.”

As of Friday morning, there were more than 1,411 Chicago attorneys, translators and law students on an e-mail list to volunteer at O’Hare International Airports following Trump’s travel ban. Since the executive order creating the ban was temporarily stayed, the group has been staffing 10 volunteers at a time.

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center also cited increased activism among lawyers after the travel ban. The group led the biggest volunteer training session in its 30-year history on Feb. 2. Normal sessions have about 40 to 50 attorneys sign up. February registrations hit the room capacity of 130; organizers had to schedule an overflow session for March.

Megan J. Davis, a staff attorney for Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, said the turnout of lawyers is a good start.

“People who I think have probably never gotten on the ground, in the streets, at the airport are really coming out of the woodwork and that’s an incredible momentum that we have to keep carrying,” she said.

However, Davis said, Friday’s protest was not even one month into the Trump presidency.

“We have four more years potentially of this administration and we have to really think of ways to not let this sense of urgency begin to feel normalized,” Davis said.

Diane C. O’Connell, a staff attorney for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, was encouraged by the outpouring of legal volunteering and others protesting.

“I am filled with hope because I know that as lawyers, legal workers, students and activists, we know how to work powerfully,” O’Connell said. “And to win, we will need to keep working.”

MiAngel C. Cody, an attorney with the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois and a leader with The Decarceration Collective, said the political moment is helping people see the cross-pollination of issues and no longer work in silos.

“This was just the beginning,” Cody said. “The tidal wave is about to come.”

WGN TV: Fire guts South Side youth homeless shelter

By WGN News Desk and Sean Lewis

An Englewood shelter for homeless youth was gutted in a fire last month.

Anne Holcomb helps run the shelter and says it’s unknown what started the fire.

“That’s part of the struggle that we are in right now,” she told WGN News.  “The fire marshal wasn’t able to determine the cause of the fire and the facility had been closed for several hours when the fire broke out.”

The shelter opened nearly a year and a half ago and gave homeless youth a place to sleep, store belongings and get them on a better path.

LINK to the WGN video report

For now, those in charge are looking for a temporary facility and  donations of beds, bedding, towels and toiletries.  It’s a monumental task as an organization that gives support now looks for its own.

“Our washer and dryer melted, our stove, our refrigerator …everything’s melted and gone,” Holcomb said.

The shelter does have insurance but because the cause is still being determined, it’s not paying on the claim.  Unity Parenting, which runs this shelter, has set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise enough in donations to open a temporary shelter.

 

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: New homeless shelter for young people aims to fill gap

By Mark Brown, columnist

The bright-eyed staff of Covenant House was assembled early one morning last week and set to get to work helping homeless young people.

Their new facility — a drop-in daytime shelter inside Lawson House, the former YMCA building at 30 W. Chicago Ave. — had just opened for business.

It is the first entry into Chicago for Covenant House International, one of North America’s largest providers of youth homeless services, and except for a glitch with the time clock, everything seemed ready.

There was a kitchen to serve breakfast and lunch, lockers for storage of personal belongings, a computer lab, showers and quiet spaces for an array of counseling services.

Maybe more important, the young workers gave off a welcoming vibe, in keeping with the “open door, open intake policy” considered the organization’s hallmark.

The main thing missing was the homeless young people themselves, only a few of whom found their way to the location in the opening days.

That will change quickly as word gets out. We can help with that.

Unfortunately, Chicago has no shortage of homeless youth and no abundance of places to help them.

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization's new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization’s new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Last year’s annual city homeless census tallied 500 homeless individuals ages 16 to 24 living in shelters or on the street on a given day.

If you add in an estimate of those who are doubled up or “couch-surfing” in other people’s homes, that number grows to more like 2,000. Yet there are few organizations specifically working with the age group.

“I didn’t know so many people went through this,” said Jeremy Colon, 20, of Humboldt Park, who found out otherwise after his mom lost her job and they were evicted from their apartment and left homeless.

Now he’s got a room in what’s called a transitional housing program run by La Casa Norte. He knows others aren’t as lucky.

Among them is Marissa Avila, 20, who told me she is now staying in an overnight adult shelter after several months of sleeping beneath bridges, under porches and inside abandoned buildings.

The unmet need is what persuaded New York-based Covenant House, which says it serves 50,000 homeless youth at 30 shelters in the United States, Canada and Latin America, to make Chicago the site of its first new location in 17 years.

Covenant House Illinois will specifically target 18-to-24-year-olds, that difficult age when young adults must begin to find their own way in the world and sometimes falter.

Joseph Mole, the organization’s executive director, said many homeless youths have been thrown out of their homes, often because they are LGBTQ, involved in a gang or too old for foster care. Others are runaways or “throwaway” kids whose parents don’t fulfill their responsibilities.

“A lot of kids are fleeing situations that are not safe, such as an abusive family situation,” Mole said.

When they lose housing, they become more vulnerable to the predators who would enlist them in gangs, drugs or prostitution.

On the flip side, they also are at an age where they have a better chance to put their lives back on track if somebody can reach them in time to help them find their way.

All that many of them need is someone who will “walk alongside them,” show that they care and be their advocate, Mole said.

“When a kid realizes their dreams can still happen, you’re in a whole different ballgame at that point,” said Mole, a veteran of several local social service agencies.

There is one more important thing missing from Covenant House at this time. It has no overnight beds, which may be the greatest need.

That is expected to change when the organization opens a 20-bed interim housing shelter later this year at a to-be-determined location. Another 20 beds will be added at Lawson House following a planned renovation of the building.

The drop-in shelter is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Overnight shelters typically put their homeless guests out by 7 a.m., and the idea is to give the young people a safe place to go during the day.

Spread the word. There’s new help in town.

WBEZ: Chicago homeless encampment creates, enforces its own rules

By Odette Yousef

Louis “Abdul” Jones sweeps leaves from an Uptown viaduct below Lakeshore Drive on a cold January morning.

Jones, who lives beneath the Wilson Avenue overpass in a homeless encampment with 17 other people, pushes debris away from the tents as part of his job on the “cleaning detail.”

Jones said he has lived there for nine months, and the cleanings are just one of many roles he created as part of a governance system for this tent city. Everyone who lives here has to participate.

Each morning, someone in the group clears away the trash. Normally, they’d use brooms for the sweeping, but those were recently stolen, so Jones makes do with a small square of tarp.

“We’re trying to form some type of organized community where we work together, for however long we going to be here,” Jones said. “I designed it personally because I live here. They live here. We live here. We don’t want to live here.”

Jones said he and his tent city neighbors needed a way to keep their environment orderly, both for their own health and safety, and to discredit outsiders’ claims that the encampment might be a public nuisance.

“I came up with it one night, talked to everybody — what do you all think? Let’s do it,” he said. “It’s been that way ever since, two months now.”

The cleaning detail

Danny Collins donates packed lunches of hot dogs, chips and water to Carmen Sisto, head of the cleaning detail. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Several times every hour, well-meaning people come through the Wilson Avenue viaduct and drop off donated items.

Danny Collins, a South Side resident, pulled over and got out of his car to tell Jones he’d brought several packed lunches of hot dogs, chips and water. Jones followed protocol and called Carmen Sisto, head of the cleaning detail.

LINK TO LISTEN TO THE WBEZ REPORT.

With hot food deliveries like this, Sisto accepts only enough for people who are already up and about. Any extras could attract rodents.

Jones pointed to a dead rat between lanes under the viaduct. He said they used to run along the viaduct walls and gnaw into the back of tents at night. Jones and Sisto effectively stopped that by laying down boards soaked in a toxic solution behind the tents.

“People don’t understand when they bring food, and they sit it down among the tents, (the rats) come,” Jones said. “Sometimes they come in hordes.”

Carmen Sisto serves as head of the cleaning detail. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Sisto assigns the daily cleaning duties to a different person each morning.

“Sometimes they don’t like it, but that’s alright,” Sisto said.

Jones said they’re also careful to recycle. The group collects their empty propane tanks, in particular, in empty milk crates that someone drives by to pick up.

With non-perishable donations, such as clothing, blankets, hygiene products and propane tanks for small heaters, Sisto keeps a tight control of inventory. He stocks items in three storage tents.

“I lock everything up in tents with padlocks on them,” Sisto said.“If someone needs something, we have no problem giving it to them,”

But if anyone in the community steals the communal supplies, there are consequences.

House meetings

Non-perishable supplies are kept in a storage tent secured with a padlock in the Wilson Avenue tent city. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

The cardinal rules of the Wilson Avenue viaduct community are don’t steal, don’t disrespect others in the tent city and don’t disrespect outsiders who pass through. Violations are taken up and discussed by the group.

“We have a house meeting, with the house elders,” Jones said.

Though Jones is 50 years old and the mastermind of this system, he’s not a house elder. The elders are two twenty-somethings who’ve been homeless at this location for two years — longer than anyone else in the group.

“No matter what we decide, the house elders got the last word,” Jones said. “If it’s an infraction that will bring about CPD or somebody gets hurt, then we put it to a vote.”

In extreme cases, Jones said, they will kick someone out of the community, escorting that person out from the viaduct with his or her tent and belongings.

The group also holds house meetings to reach consensus on which supplies they most need.

“People that come down here and bring us clothes, we tell them we don’t need clothes, that we have enough of it. And we tell them we need propane,” said William Brown, one of the house elders. “The people that bring clothes down here, they come back and bring us propane heaters and make sure that we’re good.”

Security detail

William Brown, one of the house elders, shows the propane tanks community members rely on for heat in the Wilson Avenue tent city. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

“Every neighborhood deserves some type of comfort at night,” said Jones, fiddling with a small, blue two-way radio. “This is how we monitor at night.”

The group has three radios that Jones and two other security detail members keep. He said they switch off two-hour patrol shifts, watching everyone and everything that comes near the viaduct.

“One goes in, gets warm, another one comes out,” he said. “If they hit that call button like that, we’ll know it’s a call from one of the security team, and if we get that call from the security team, everybody that’s on deck comes out.”

Jones said night is when tent sleepers — and their possessions — are most vulnerable to people who come through to cause trouble or to steal. But the community still maintains a welcoming posture to anyone who needs a place to sleep. They keep a couple of unoccupied tents stocked with blankets for newcomers.

Women’s crew

Shenise Cottreau leads the tent city’s women’s crew with another of the female residents. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

“If a female comes down who don’t have no place to go, we give them blankets, a little tent for the night, and we tell the men we did that,” said Shenise Cottreau, the 20-year-old who leads the tent city’s women’s crew with another of the female residents.

She said they make sure women who come to the tent city have food, and they distribute any female-specific donations, such as tampons.

Cottreau said she’s been homeless for three years, and used to sleep in parks and on sidewalks in Uptown. She said the Wilson viaduct tent city is the first place she has felt secure. She described the community as a family.

“We fight, we argue. We say s— to each other we don’t mean,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we still combine. Because out here makes it to where you have no choice but to really combine.”

“We’re trying to get out of here”

A tent under the Wilson viaduct has a crate in front of it for recycling propane tanks. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

The organizational system has only been in place for two months, but Jones said it’s made a big difference in how clean and safe the viaduct feels.

The strict rules, in part, account for the relatively few tents in this encampment, Jones said. If someone is removed, he said, they often go to the viaduct just north of them, on Lawrence Avenue, where tents are crammed against each other on both sides of the street.

Jones said his knack for organizing and delegating came from his time in prison.

“I was a young, wild little boy. I did all the stuff kids did, went to jail, went to prison, all that stuff,” he said. “And you learn in those certain structures, prison and controlled environments, you learn stuff like this.”

After prison, Jones applied his logistical skills while working in shipping and receiving for a large corporation. But rent on his Uptown apartment was hiked, forcing him out onto the streets. After that, Jones said keeping a job was nearly impossible.

Jones said the system at the viaduct keeps his skills sharp, but it also takes up all his time. He said he would rather be working.

“When all is said and done, with little bitty things that I’ve tried to enact, it’s working a little bit,” he said. “But the thing is, I don’t want people to think, hey, we’re trying to live down here. We’re trying to get out of here. And until we get out of here, this is what we’ve have to do.”

Chicago Lawyer: Helping homeless teens digitally

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When homeless youths need help, Graham Bowman hopes a new app can help them find it.

Bowman, 29, is one of five staff attorneys at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Law Project, which runs a series of mobile legal clinics in shelters, schools and health clinics frequented by homeless youth.

The Law Project partnered with The Young Invincibles and, funded by the Visiting Nurses Association Foundation, designed a GPS-enabled mobile app that will help homeless 15- to 24-year-olds locate the services they need in places they can access.

CL: When I hear “homeless youth,” what should I be picturing?

GB: A typical situation you might have is a young person who is bouncing from friends’ house to friends’ house to distant relatives’ apartment and who really has no home and has never had any permanent nighttime residence. They can spend a month in a shelter and then an opportunity might present itself to stay in a crowded apartment with friends and then that would fall apart and then they’re back at the shelter. So these situations can be really unstable.

One thing that I’ve seen recently in the last couple years is youth that will identify an abandoned building, like an abandoned house somewhere in the city, so you’ll have a lot of youth kind of squatting there for a period of time.

CL: How did you become involved in the app?

GB: A lot of my [Law Project] clients were used to just going to emergency rooms for health care, so even after they got Medicaid [in the 2014 Affordable Care Act expansion] they would still just keep going to the emergency room. A lot of my clients weren’t really aware of other family or qualified health center clinics around them that would be a better fit for their needs.

The shelters themselves never really had any kind of good resources for navigating those problems. In one instance the shelter wasn’t even really aware there was a family clinic three blocks away. I think all of that just came from the fact that the homeless population as a whole but also homeless youth had been relying on these safety net providers like emergency rooms for so long that there wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the community about what other services were available.

CL: Tell me about the app.

GB: [In a meeting with VNA Foundation and The Young Invincibles] one idea that we had was that if both homeless youth and case workers at shelters — or just any social worker that really encounters this population — had a discrete, curated app with resources that were specifically relevant to homeless youth, it would do a lot of good.

One thing I’ve seen in my work is a lot is that a lot more youth have smartphones or access to smartphones than you would think. They might not have the data plan but they certainly access apps on the internet when they have access to Wi-Fi.

We had a small grant from VNA Foundation to really just explore this, and talk to providers and talk to youth if it was something they felt would be useful. And the answer just came back as a resounding “yes” from everybody we talked to.

Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Mitchell: Jesse Webster – halfway to freedom

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, walks out of The Salvation Army Freedom Center on Sept. 26, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, walks out of The Salvation Army Freedom Center on Sept. 26, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Third in a 4-part series

By Mary Mitchell, columnist

In commuting Jesse Webster’s life sentence, President Barack Obama gave the 48-year-old Chicago-area man a second chance at life.

It was “one of the most precious gifts a human being could give another,” according to Webster.

After more than two decades in prison, and then five months at a Salvation Army halfway house on the Southwest Side before being totally free with his Sept. 26 release, Webster was desperate to get on with his life.

He found out quickly it wouldn’t be easy.

Webster had been on the street only a few weeks when we met at my office. He was still worried something could go wrong and he’d end up back in a cell.

So was his family. When Webster told his brother Lee he was taking public transportation to get downtown, Lee nixed that idea.

“What if something happens?” his brother told him. “What if the bus breaks down? I’m going to get you an Uber.”

Webster kept a close eye on his watch throughout our meeting.

“It is really annoying,” he told me. “They release you and got you on a short leash. I have a job interview on Friday, and they told me they only got three hours for it.

It was the first time we had sat down face-to-face. He was shorter than he looked in photos showing him in prison garb, staring directly into the camera. In those, there was an intensity and also sadness in his face.

Now, that sadness was gone. But the intensity was still there.

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parol for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, sits down for a conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times, May 17, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Meeting with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell in May, Jesse Webster worried that if he got back to his halfway house late, “They can charge me with escape.” | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“If I am late, they can charge me with escape,” he said, explaining why he was so anxious. “The worst thing of all is if I get out on clemency and I am late and get charged with escape.”

After the interview, I drove him back to the halfway house. We stopped at a Popeyes on the way. The anxiety was still there.

“The first time I don’t get back on time,” he said, “they’re going to put a monitor on my leg.”

He was free. But freedom still felt elusive. And even after facing far worse for more than two decades, the restrictions now were a burden.

It irked him that a residential assistant at the halfway house had reprimanded him for stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts without permission even though the Dunkin’ Donuts was right on the corner.

“I was two hours early, but they say you can’t deviate,” he said. “They call it a halfway house. But you only get 20 percent of freedom.”

In prison, Webster had developed a habit of putting his most urgent thoughts on paper. The habit stuck with him. In an essay he emailed to me, Webster complained that in the halfway house he was constantly being reminded he was “still in prison.”

webster-writing

 

In prison, Jesse Webster had developed a habit of putting his most urgent thoughts on paper. The habit stuck with him when he got out.

 

 

“Most residents are familiar with being looked upon with a disparaging eye from prison staff,” he wrote.

“However, to hear such words from the very person, outside the prison walls, who is assigned to guide and motivate a resident into wanting to be a productive citizen once they have been released from prison creates a bad omen.”

He expressed disappointment that halfway house residents weren’t allowed to have devices with internet access.

“The resident was denied an opportunity because he or she did not have access to the way the world communicates in today’s society,” he wrote.

Richard Hart, a spokesman for the Salvation Army halfway house, declined to comment on Webster’s complaints. Hart said the “residential re-entry” program that the Salvation Army operates for male and female former federal prisoners in Cook, DuPage, Will and Kane counties under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons covers job readiness, resume preparation, online resume preparation, mock job interviews, money management and life skills and includes consultations with case managers.

Webster, who while in prison had taught re-entry workshops for other inmates, wasn’t impressed by what was offered by the Salvation Army.

“Like I never had a job,” he said. “There are a lot of guys like me that want to do the right thing. But if you don’t give them any opportunity to learn the skills to present themselves — soft skills, like how to use the computer — that is a challenge right there for a person who has been in prison. It is too easy to go back to your old life.”

Webster was particularly perturbed he couldn’t get a pass to spend Mother’s Day with his mother. It would have been his first with her in two decades.

Though free, Webster wasn’t having much fun. He wasn’t going out partying, he wasn’t hanging with old friends, and he wasn’t dating. What he did know to do to help him cope was to exercise.

“I have to go run just to balance out,” he said.

As soon as he was released from the hallway house, Webster planned to move in with his brother Lee and sister-in-law Tanesha.

“It was just adding another family member to the home,” Tanesha told me.

Webster was luckier than many leaving prison. It doesn’t help that for people with criminal backgrounds, the Chicago Housing Authority has a three-year wait before someone coming out of prison can get into public housing and a five-year wait to be able to get Section 8 housing.

Jonathan Holmes. | Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Jonathan Holmes | Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“You can’t find housing right away, and many people end up homeless,” said Jonathan Holmes, a policy expert with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The organization has a pilot housing program that allows re-entry providers to recommend clients for housing without them having to go through a wait period and is currently working with the CHA and the Housing Authority of Cook County to improve their policies on providing housing access.

Meanwhile, organizations like St. Leonard’s Ministries, which provides emergency housing for up to 40 men at its St. Leonard’s House, and 18 women at Grace House, both on the West Side, are trying to take up the slack.

“They come to St. Leonard’s because they don’t have any other place to go,” said Erwin Mayer, its executive director. “Some have been in prison a long time and are estranged from their families. And, in some cases, the family is engaging in activities that they don’t want to be a part of.”

***

Webster was so eager to leave the halfway house for good in September that, even before the sun came up, he had cleared out his belongings.

During his incarceration, Webster developed high blood pressure. The Salvation Army halfway house referred him to a clinic. But his medical bills, which the state was supposed to cover, hadn’t been paid in light of the state’s continuing budget stalemate.

Now, he was getting past-due notices for the medical treatment he received while in the halfway house’s custody.

“I’m getting mail about delinquent medical bills where they are trying to mess up my credit,” Webster told me in September. “They told me, ‘We’ll get it paid, but it’ll probably go on your credit.’ ”

Webster was frustrated. “This is a recipe to set you back,” he said.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to discuss Webster’s specific complaints. But a spokesman confirmed the federal prisons agency generally authorizes routine medical services, including medications, and later reimburses the costs of the services.

Webster also felt it was unfair for the halfway house to keep 25 percent of the gross income he earned from a job he had landed.

“I’m just coming home from doing a 21-year stretch,” he said. “I don’t have anything. How do you expect me to succeed if I can’t save any money?”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the halfway house’s residents are required to make “subsistence” payments each payday but said the fee can be waived for indigent residents.

So Webster asked for a waiver.

“I still got to pay for the bus for work,” he said. “I’ve got to feed myself. And I have to wear clothes. We are not asking for a silver spoon. We are asking for an opportunity.”

He sees his experience at the halfway house as “arrested freedom.”

“Arrested freedom surfaces,” he said, “when ex-offenders are hindered and deprived of necessary tools to seize opportunities beneficial for everyday life.”

To read the full series, click here.

WTTW, Chicago Tonight: Illinois’ black unemployment rate highest in the nation

By Reuben Unrau

While U.S. unemployment is at its lowest point in years, a new report shines a light on a racial gap that’s especially prominent in Illinois.

For the 15th month in a row, Illinois has the nation’s highest unemployment rate among African-Americans, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

In an analysis of third quarter data, Illinois’ black unemployment rate stood at 14.2 percent, according to the EPI. Nationwide, unemployment for African-Americans was 8.4 percent.

The report, which analyzes unemployment rates by state and ethnicity, found a prevailing divide along racial lines despite overall employment improvements since the recession. In Illinois, the white-black unemployment gap is especially wide. While nationally, African-Americans are unemployed at 2.1 times the rate of their white counterparts, blacks in Illinois are unemployed at a rate nearly three times higher than whites.

“When unemployment decreases at a national level, we have to break it down by race,” said Janelle Jones, author of the report. “Saying simply that unemployment is down is really leaving behind entire communities who have barely recovered since the Great Recession.”

In an analysis of the EPI report, Michael Lucci, vice president of nonprofit think-tank the Illinois Policy Institute, argues that Cook County’s recent ordinance to increase the minimum wage to $13 per hour has hurt employment prospects for African-Americans.

“These laws effectively ban job opportunities that might otherwise employ young black men and women in the Chicago area,” Lucci writes. “The first solution is to stop digging a deeper hole with minimum wage hikes and roll back the misguided minimum wage hikes in Chicago and Cook County.”

Jones, however, says that African-American workers have been largely impacted by jobs in the manufacturing and construction sector which have failed to return to pre-recession levels. She also points to another EPI report that finds “no significant evidence that job losses in the post-2007 period were driven by federal minimum wage increases.” Institutions with better wages, and more worker protections and unions, Jones says, prove to be more stable for African-Americans.

“If the only way we can employ African-Americans is through low-wage jobs, that is a problem,” she said. “We can either design an economy that only employs minorities at low wages, or we can design an economy that raises the floor and let’s everyone have some bargaining power and a living wage.”

Unemployment is one of the key issues addressed in the Chicago Urban League’s “Blueprint for an Equitable Chicago,” a 10-year agenda to improve conditions for the city’s African-American population. The plan emphasizes education as the foundation for future economic success.

Shari Runner, CEO and president of the Chicago Urban League, is specifically critical of the state’s education funding mechanism that relies heavily on school districts’ property taxes. A 2015 Education Trust report reveals that Illinois has the nation’s largest funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty districts, with the highest poverty districts in the state receiving nearly 20 percent less funding than districts with the lowest poverty levels.

“We know that there is a brain drain that eventually leads to a job drain,” said Runner. “These current outcomes are long-term and reflect the investments that the state of Illinois has decided to make, specifically in mind, against education and deeply rooted in race.”