If (Gov.) Edgar’s budget cuts go through, their numbers will increase dramatically. And if advocate John Donahue runs true to form, so will their visibility.
By Robert McClory
John Donahue is a solid, tanklike man who seems to relish combat, verbal or otherwise. One morning last month he addressed a teeming mass of 500 homeless people gathered in the rotunda of the Illinois capitol building in Springfield. There in those august surroundings, Donahue, dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, said he had just heard a radio report about a Chicago woman who was jailed after allowing her baby to starve to death. “What do you think will happen,” he asked, “when the first child dies after the governor’s budget cuts go into effect? Will Jim Edgar go to jail? Will the legislators who voted for the cuts go to jail?”
His voice was momentarily drowned out by the approving roar of the assembly, amplified and reverberating beneath the great dome of the rotunda. Donahue continued to lambaste irresponsible legislators for many minutes before turning the podium over to other speakers equally irate about what they regard as Illinois’ imminent human-rights catastrophe. In appearance this crowd contradicted the usual image of the homeless. They were sober, modestly dressed. Many, as Donahue points out, were members of the “working homeless,” that sizable, often ignored group of persons who hold jobs but don’t make enough money to afford adequate shelter. The 500 had slept the night before on the floor of the rotunda. And Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and principal choreographer of the day’s activities, wanted to make certain they did not leave without making their views known. Hearing the crowd, a smattering of legislators, mostly Democrats, emerged from the recesses of the building and begged for an opportunity to assure the visitors of their personal goodwill as well as their disapproval of the proposed Republican atrocity.
Later in the morning members of the group broke up into prearranged teams to meet privately with legislators and further press their case. Donahue, meanwhile, was dueling live on Springfield’s WMAY with right-wing call-in host Don “One-Eyed Jack” Jackson. “Tell your friends to go get jobs!” Jackson told his guest. “Can’t they read the help-wanted ads in the Tribune and Sun-Times?” Bleeding-heart liberals like Donahue should share their own wealth with the bums, he argued, instead of pulling “expensive stunts” and messing up orderly governmental operations. Donahue more than held his own. Jobs that pay a living wage are scarce, he insisted, especially in a city like Chicago, which has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 17 years. Characterizing the homeless as lazy bums, he pointed out, indicated a woeful ignorance.
That afternoon, he and the homeless entourage returned to Chicago for strategizing and coalition building with other organizations concerned about the budget cuts. In early June Donahue was back in Springfield, this time with 3,000 persons on the capitol lawn to condemn the budget slashing of “Edgar Scissorhands.” And the campaign will continue through the last days of this General Assembly’s session. Whatever happens, Donahue is prepared to raise hell until the message gets through. “You have to stay right in the legislators’ faces with the issues,” he says.
What particularly concerns him and other advocates for the homeless is the devastating effect the cuts will have in Chicago. The state intends to eliminate all medicaid coverage for single persons in the General Assistance (GA) program and to trim the eligibility period for the modest GA allotment ($165 a month) from one year to six months. Daniel Alvarez, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Human Services, has called that slash “an unveiled attack on the poorest Illinoisans and an undeniable abdication of state responsibility.”
In effect, the slash will double–or triple–the number of homeless people on the streets of Chicago, putting unprecedented pressure on private charitable agencies already pushed to the limit. Figures vary widely on how many Chicago homeless there really are. The latest figures compiled by the Department of Human Services for 1989 claimed 49,000 were without shelter. Yet 78,000 Chicagoans also got General Assistance, and most of them were sitting on the cusp of abject poverty; in many cases that $165 a month was all that was keeping them off the street. Speaking recently before the Illinois house’s human services committee of the governor’s transition team, Commissioner Alvarez said the six-month cutoff would put “all the current GA recipients on the city’s streets in the dead of winter. . . . The Chicago shelter system, despite a 58 percent expansion in the last two years . . . would be helpless to stem such a flood of increased homelessness.”
Unless some kind of rescue occurs, all Chicago GA recipients may have their grants stopped as of July 1. Mayor Daley has indicated the city has no funds for GA, and Edgar’s plan calls for an immediate cutoff to communities that don’t supply half the allotments from their own resources.
Donahue believes the original 49,000 homeless figure is conservative. “The numbers of unreported homeless are far greater than reported,” he says. “Look at the people sleeping in the crevices and boxes on Lower Wacker Drive! And the people living in abandoned buildings! When the old Eagle Arms Hotel burned last January, they routed 37 people out of the building. Those are the kind of people who don’t show up in anybody’s figures.”
And so the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless–an advocacy, lobbying, direct-action organization with some 300 active members (institutions and individuals) and a budget this year of $287,000–is taking on the responsibility of stemming the tide. And John Donahue is the man in charge.
Somehow it seems appropriate that he should be in the middle of such a desperate situation. Better known to his friends as Juancho (which means “wide John” in Spanish), he has the rugged look and build of a former football player–like Dick Butkus or Larry Csonka, the sort of powerhouse who wouldn’t mind crashing into a wall of bodies, sending them flying in all directions, then sprinting back to the huddle eager for another shot. In fact, long before the current campaign Donahue took on a variety of powerful foes, including Manuel Noriega. He has survived death threats and an attempt on his life, even rolled around on the ground on occasion, wrestling with police officers from several countries. Yet his brashness has always been on behalf of those he regards as the exploited and oppressed, and his aggressiveness is tempered with a kind of personal calm and gentleness. As his associates point out, he is part Rambo, part Mother Teresa.
It is not altogether clear how Donahue got this job, which he’s held only since last October. He has never been homeless himself, and most of his organizing experience has been in Panama and with the Hispanic community in Chicago. Last fall he heard through a contact that the position was open. Les Brown, the director of the coalition, had decided to step down after a ten-year tenure marked by some noteworthy achievements on behalf of the homeless, including the passage of the state Homeless Prevention Act (the money for which Edgar has so far dumped into the general revenue fund). By the time Donahue had his interview, the coalition board had already considered a variety of other qualified candidates. “But when I walked out onto the street after the interview,” recalls Donahue, “a bird shit on my shoulder, and I figured that meant I had the job.” He did.
Doug Dobmeyer, executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition, says, “When Les Brown said he was leaving, everybody wondered how he could be replaced. This isn’t a job for a timid person, someone who’s going to take baby steps, accept partial solutions. And that’s not John Donahue either. He’s a strong, innovative leader, the sort who won’t take no for an answer. He’ll do fine.” It may also be that the board welcomed Donahue’s distance from the squabbles within the coalition. Or perhaps they decided the candidate best suited for the job should have some experience with third-world dictatorships.
To understand Donahue’s single-mindedness in the face of intransigent institutions, it is necessary to consider his activity in Panama back in the 70s. He was a Catholic priest in those days, and he was in Panama as one member of a team of Chicago priests who had established a mission at San Miguelito, a rapidly growing squatters’ community on the outskirts of Panama City. When the first contingent of clergy arrived in 1962, some 2,000 campesinos who had trekked in from the jungles seeking opportunity lived there. By the time Donahue left in 1978, San Miguelito had sprouted into a mini-metropolis of 250,000, with 15 parishes and a life of its own. But the mission became widely known not so much for its rapid growth as for its new ideas. Father Leo Mahon, the Chicago priest who established the parish and oversaw its operation for many years, was a pioneer in forming small groups of the poor to read the Bible and interpret its meaning for their own lives.
Those small groups were among the first “base communities” in Central America; their numbers and influence have since proliferated throughout Latin America and elsewhere. The kind of “this world” Christianity that emerged in the small gatherings developed into liberation theology: a way of understanding religion that has revitalized Christian communities all over the world while upsetting defenders of the status quo in church and state.
In the 1960s San Miguelito proved a fertile environment for new ideas and radical action. The squatters were without running water, electricity, and paved roads in an area that averaged 110 inches of rain a year. Many had to slog through the mire for five miles or more just to obtain drinkable water. With the approval and direction of their American clergy, they began to act directly on their own behalf. Organized demands for social change mounted.
The nine superwealthy families who controlled Panama’s puny economy might have silenced the “gringo priests” once and for all were it not for the rise of the military dictator General Omar Torrijos, who overthrew the existing government in 1968. Through sheer determination, the religious and social innovators in San Miguelito established a symbiotic relationship with Torrijos. He visited the place often and spoke favorably of the collaborative organization within the local parishes. And he pointed to San Miguelito as the model for the kind of national economic turnaround he planned. “If San Miguelito fails,” he declared in a moment of flaming oratory, “the revolution fails.” He even patterned his new national legislature on the highly collaborative, democratic models he observed in the San Miguelito parishes.
But the honeymoon proved short-lived. Three months after Donahue arrived at the mission in 1971, real trouble started. A Colombian priest who was working with the Americans disappeared. A church-sponsored investigation claimed later that General Torrijos’s ambitious intelligence chief, Manuel Noriega, had the priest bludgeoned to death and dropped from a helicopter into the ocean. The priest’s alleged crime: identifying too closely with the peasants and pushing too hard for an increase in their wages. Whatever the truth, the happy relationship between church and state perished along with the priest. Some 14,000 people marched to protest the alleged murder, blaming Torrijos and Noriega. No one, however, was ever indicted, and a climate of oppression, marked by arbitrary arrests and frequent police raids, descended on Panama.
Donahue was determined to identify fully with the people of San Miguelito. Instead of living with the other priests in a central location, he built himself a hut of corrugated tin and cinder blocks similar to the ramshackle abodes of most squatters. His house, which lacked plumbing and electricity, was in a neighborhood called Samaria, where the newest and poorest arrivals lived. “You couldn’t help but be impressed with the scenery of the area,” he says, “the mountains and the lush tropical forests. Even the fence posts sprouted. And here in the middle of it all, this awful poverty.”
He achieved a kind of notoriety as an outsider who shared every aspect of local life, including the messiest. During his first two months as the priest of Samaria, he buried eight children who died of dysentery caused by contaminated water. He recalls one funeral in particular. “He was just a baby, and the parents were overcome with grief. I went to their house and dressed the body. Then I nailed together a small casket. The father and I carried the casket and a shovel for an hour, walking through the hills to the cemetery. We dug the grave, and all this time a huge rainstorm was pouring down. I remember getting into the grave myself with a coffee can and bailing out the water because it was filling up faster than we could dig.”
He ate, drank, and sang with the people as well, earning the nickname Juancho, which has stuck with him ever since. He dug ditches, put up fences, and hauled gravel for roads. Once he broke his foot while helping garbage collectors pick up trash in the middle of the night. “I’ve never really been handy,” he says, “but I like to be involved.”
According to Father Fred Brandstrader, a Chicago priest who worked with him in the San Miguelito mission, Donahue possesses a unique combination of characteristics. “He’s got this priestly education, plus an unbelievable knack for picking up language, plus a natural quality of leadership and organization. Besides all that, he’s a truck-driver type who mixes well with everybody. There’s no pretense, no distance.”
Donahue established himself as an innovative strategist through a series of demonstrations calling for improved governmental service for San Miguelito residents. He led crowds of poor women to the national waterworks in Panama City, where, amid threats, they washed their clothes to protest the lack of sanitary water facilities. He and some 100 youths staged a takeover of city hall, locking the sheriff in a room and retreating only when the national guard was called out. The actions were especially noteworthy because such boldness had not been seen before among the Panamanian poor. Gradually, concessions were made, including the installation of electricity and water lines, but improvements could never keep up with the continuing flow of people into the area. Meanwhile, Donahue developed a cooperative to assist families through buying large quantities of staples at reduced rates, launched an education project similar to Head Start, and oversaw the creation of some 50 catfish farms in the mountainous area around Panama City.
Such intimate identification with the people and their human concerns was not especially appreciated by church authorities. The bishop of Panama City, Marcos McGrath (whose mother was Peruvian and whose father was a U.S. businessman), never felt comfortable with the Chicago priests and their extremist views. He counseled accommodation with the government and urged the clergy to maintain a respectable distance from the parishioners. When the bishop took Mother Teresa and four of her nuns from India on a tour of San Miguelito, he was irate and embarrassed to encounter Donahue, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, driving a dump truck loaded with sand.
The four nuns stayed to work in the mission, but Donahue never felt very comfortable with them. He was angry whenever he found them teaching the people the dances of India or dressing children in Indian saris. The native culture, he thought, did not need this foreign import.
Ironically, some Panamanian priests and their congregations regarded what Donahue and his associates stood for as a foreign import–one that was both unnecessary and disruptive. In lengthy formal protests the Americans were accused not only of stirring up the people with Marxist ideas but also of denying the virginity of Mary and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Government officials regularly echoed the accusations. The complaints went all the way to Rome, and Leo Mahon was required to rebut the charges in what amounted to a series of heresy trials in the mid-70s. He insisted that he and his colleagues weren’t preaching new doctrine, only putting a different emphasis on the old: Mary was portrayed as a courageous woman rather than as a plaster statue; Jesus was seen as a challenger of the status quo, not just an invisible presence in the communion wafer. And, insisted Mahon, the Chicagoans were not fomenting violence.
Even today Donahue finds absurd the charge that liberation theology is some kind of leftist ideology. “Don’t lay any of that ideological garbage on me!” he declares. “There’s nothing ideological about the class struggle. It’s not an idea–it’s a fact. And when people recognize that fact and speak against injustice, they are met with institutional violence–from the government, from the police. That’s where your violence comes from! Christ talks about the rich and the poor, and he says those who cling to riches at the expense of others are not gonna get into the kingdom. That’s not ideology, that’s the message!” Although church officials in Rome exonerated the missionaries of heretical intent, the rumblings of the opposition never ceased.
During four of his years in Panama, Donahue was the vicar for an entire section of the diocese, the number-two man under McGrath. But even in that theoretically lofty position he continued his gritty life as long as he could. When Noriega attempted to deport an activist layman, Jesus Garcia, from the country on the charge of sedition, Donahue hid him for a time, then linked arms with Garcia and refused to leave him after he was captured and on his way to the airport. When Garcia was put into a car, Donahue kept his grip on him while one officer repeatedly slammed the car door on Donahue’s arm and another held a gun to his head. Finally detached, he rushed to McGrath and implored him to use his influence. The bishop, always fearful of open confrontation, declined.
Panamanian officials began calling for the deportation of Donahue and his associates. Vigilante committees threatened the reformers and accused them of planning to blow up government-owned utilities. For safety’s sake, Donahue moved out of his one-man shanty and into more secure quarters with the other priests. One morning as he drove a van through a mountain pass, he was overtaken by a car that tried to force him off the road. Shouting “Gringo, son of a bitch!” the occupants hurled rocks at the van, while Donahue struggled to control the vehicle and outrun the would-be assassins. He deliberately swerved off the road at one point, plowed through the veranda of a local home–sending chairs and tables flying–and did not stop until he was at the local headquarters of the national guard. “I figured they wouldn’t try anything in so public a place,” he says. He was correct, though the guards who examined his badly damaged van offered no sympathy. They accused him of starting the trouble himself since he was a “known communist.”
“If demanding clean water so babies won’t have to die is communism,” shouted Donahue, “then so be it! I won’t back off.
He was called in before Noriega and threatened in no uncertain terms. “If you were a Panamanian I might take your shit,” said Noriega. “But since you are a foreigner, I will cut you off!” However, Bishop McGrath, whose relationship with the Chicagoans was always enigmatic, defended the priest. And Noriega, who was not yet top man in Panama, did not proceed with his plans. He feared an open war with the church of San Miguelito.
The tension prevailed until 1978, when Donahue’s tenure in the Central American mission was concluded by his own decision. He had fallen in love with Chelin Patino, a young Panamanian woman (“my thousandth infatuation,” he says), and they decided to marry. Bishop McGrath said he understood why the young man lost his vocation: he had lived “too close” to the people.
“No way,” Donahue told him. “I found my vocation among these people, and I’ll continue to work with the poor.”
Church law required that he resign from the priesthood and his post, so Juancho and Chelin reluctantly pulled up stakes and came to Chicago. The Chicago involvement in San Miguelito lasted only two more years. John Cardinal Cody, the Chicago archbishop, believed the operation cost too much and stirred too much talk, especially in Rome, and funds were withdrawn. High church officials in Panama were not greatly upset about the end of the arrangement.
Donahue, meanwhile, took a job as a counselor at Association House, a well-established Chicago agency serving the Puerto Rican community. “From the first he struck me as an upbeat, jovial guy who could help people deal with frustrating situations,” said Miguel del Valle, who was then an Association House colleague and later its director. “He had a lot of organizing experience, and you could see he really felt the emotion of the Hispanic community. He had very little tolerance for injustice.”
Donahue stayed in the position for four years, proving himself a competent organizer in a far different culture. He developed employment-training programs and took on the establishment, leading marches to City Hall and Chicago City College headquarters over alleged discrimination against Hispanics.
Adjusting to life in this country was hard for Chelin at first, but neither she nor her husband had much time to lament their modest circumstances in the Uptown area since their family was growing fast. The first child was born in 1980, the second in 1982. They now have five children, ranging in age from 11 to 1. A sixth child died of meningitis at the age of three months.
In 1983 Donahue was named director of Comite Latino, an activist community group fathered by the Organization of the NorthEast. It was in this capacity that the man with the face of an Irish cop became a familiar sight at Hispanic community meetings and demonstrations, not to mention fiestas and parties. He was a principal strategist in Comite’s protracted campaign to oust Ed Kelly as director of the Chicago Park District. Charging that only 77 of the district’s 5,100-odd employees were Hispanic, the organization demanded immediate job concessions. Kelly refused to even talk to the Comite representatives, triggering a series of marches and sit-ins at the Park District headquarters on McFetridge Drive as well as picketing of Kelly’s home.
When Reverend Jorge Morales, a Comite Latino leader and United Church of Christ pastor, was arrested during a demonstration, Donahue led a kind of raid on the police station–which resulted, predictably, in a free-for-all fistfight between him and six officers. “Somebody finally hit me in the balls with a nightstick,” said Donahue, “and that quieted me down. I was dragged into a stand-up cell and charged with inciting to riot.” He got six months supervision for that offense.
He was arrested on other occasions too, once for defacing city property when he and other Comite members put up posters on light posts; the posters had pictures of Kelly over the caption “Wanted for discrimination in the Chicago Park District.” When Mayor Harold Washington finally removed Kelly, Comite Latino was pleased and claimed no little measure of responsibility. Since then, Hispanic employment in the Park District has reportedly risen to more than 20 percent.
During the early debate over U.S. aid to the rebels in Nicaragua, Donahue and Comite members united with the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America in hanging a 30-foot-wide sign that read “No Aid to the Contras!” over a bridge on the Kennedy Expressway during morning rush hour.
“It was great,” says Donahue. “Traffic backed up. Some people waved and honked horns–others gave us the finger.” The police regarded the stunt as malicious mischief and waded into the troublemakers on the bridge. Once again, Donahue got into a brawl, tussling with several officers before being carried bodily to the squadrol.
Rita Simo, one of the original organizers of Comite Latino, says Donahue was so clearly enmeshed in the community that his leadership was never questioned or resented. “To tell the truth, I’m one of those people who usually gets uptight when a gringo is in charge,” says Simo, a native of the Dominican Republic and director of the People’s Music School in Uptown. “But Juancho’s commitment was obvious. You could see he was empowered by the people he served.”
Reverend Morales, now director of the Center for Community and Leadership Development in West Lawndale, remembers vividly Donahue’s skill in organizing protests against U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raids on the homes of Hispanics suspected of being in this country illegally. “I think he brought something with him that he got working with those Catholic congregations in Panama–a certain sensitivity to people and a genuine concern for their human problems.”
Donahue himself seems reluctant to probe his motivations. He prefers to justify his stance by telling stories of where he came from and the people he encountered along the way.
He grew up on Chicago’s west side, the second of nine children. A major influence in early life was his maternal grandfather, a stocky, bald, gregarious factory inspector who extracted as much life as possible from every waking moment. He was forever offering rides to pedestrians–friends or strangers, it made no difference–as he drove to work. He was, says Donahue with obvious admiration, “a man who could talk to anyone and who was at home anywhere.” His father, a fireman, abhorred racial prejudice, making him something of an anomaly in a community that was changing racially. “A real fair guy,” says Donahue. “He never lorded it over people, never put anyone down.” His father suffered a debilitating stroke in his later years, and though badly crippled, insisted on going to the polls in 1983 to vote for Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. One of his sisters was mentally retarded, and Donahue’s mother was a tireless volunteer for the cause of retarded persons, even driving a bus for a sheltered workshop well into her old age.
Young Donahue entered the seminary after grammar school and endured the rigorous 12-year course. “I thought constantly about quitting,” he says, “but I always saw the priesthood as a way of having an influence on people’s lives.”
His first appointment after ordination in 1965 was to Visitation parish, one of the oldest bastions of Irish Catholicism on the south side. He arrived at a critical time; the community was changing rapidly from white to black and Hispanic. Turmoil prevailed, stirred in no small way by the pastor, Monsignor Richard Wolfe, an aging man who was openly antagonistic toward blacks. “We fought all the time,” says Donahue. “One time I asked him if I could go to Mexico for a three-week course in Spanish. He said, ‘That will be fine. Just make sure you don’t come back!'”
Eventually, however, Wolfe was persuaded to allow one Sunday mass in Spanish. Throughout the Spanish services, recalls Donahue, Wolfe insisted on walking up and down the aisles wearing his monsignorial robes and red beretta. He frequently gave talks to the people about contributing money, which a bilingual parishioner dutifully translated for the congregation. Donahue, who was learning Spanish, urged the people to think of Wolfe as an abuelito–an old grandfather whose eccentricities should be tolerated good-naturedly.
In 1967 a watershed event occurred in Donahue’s brief church career. A policeman had shot and killed a young Puerto Rican as he was emerging from a stolen car, and cries of police brutality rang through the neighborhood. A crowd of angry Hispanics, armed with bricks, gathered outside a white-owned tavern at 55th and Halsted, a block from the church. Donahue, convinced they intended to break the windows of the place or worse, stood between the crowd and the tavern, and in halting Spanish urged restraint. As he spoke, a female patron (and Visitation parishioner) emerged from the tavern, and thinking the priest was egging the mob on, she spit in Donahue’s face. The crowds did break a few windows before dispersing, and Donahue was left in a state of befuddlement.
“I thought, my God, here I’m trying to act as a bridge between people and I’m getting nowhere.” The whole concept of being a bridge–standing somewhat aloof in the middle–appeared futile. “Christ preached to everyone, but he spoke from the angle, from the place, of the poor. I decided then it’s not just what you say that makes a difference, but where you say it from. I wanted to live and work with the poorest of the poor.”
He studied Spanish in Puerto Rico and volunteered for the Panama mission, where he found the poor “living the gospel a lot more deeply than I had ever talked about it.”=
In 1987, after some eight years of organizing work in Chicago, Donahue, Chelin, and their children returned to Panama. This time Juancho went as a layman employed by an educational movement called Fe y Alegria (“Faith and Joy”) that’s sponsored by the Jesuits. The program, which bills itself as beginning its work “where the asphalt ends,” teaches Indians in rural areas bioorganic farming techniques and methods of controlling the fungi and other diseases that regularly ravage their corn, bean, rice, and banana crops. Donahue hurled himself into the work and also began organizing groups to press the government and plantation owners for better conditions.
But during the years he had been gone, more virulent forms of oppression and fear had spread under Manuel Noriega, now the man in charge. Fe y Alegria was actively opposed by government officials. In addition, a decidedly antigringo mentality had emerged. Donahue had to maintain a low profile.
In late 1989 he came to Chicago alone to bury his father. While he was here, a distraught Chelin called to say that her brother, a Panamanian soldier, had been killed under mysterious circumstances in his military barracks. Also one of their daughters had pneumonia, but there was no room for her in the local hospital. At the very moment Donahue was making quick plans to return, the United States invaded Panama. For two weeks he could neither get back to his family nor communicate with Chelin. When he finally did get back, he found his daughter recovering and the family safe but badly shaken.
The area around Panama City was in a state of devastation. “Before the troops actually invaded, there had been 50 hours of saturation bombing,” he says. “The country looked like it had been blown back to 1903–when Panama was first created. Whole blocks destroyed, people wandering around in numb disbelief, some 11,000 living in temporary shelters.”
U.S. officials claimed only a handful of civilians died during the invasion, but Donahue insists the true figure is closer to 7,000. Estimates by nongovernmental investigators, such as the Red Cross and Physicians for Human Rights, range from 300 to well into the thousands. More than half the bombs missed their targets (Noriega’s headquarters and military installations) and fell on densely packed neighborhoods with flimsy housing. As in Iraq, the actual number will probably never be known. Donahue believes the Panamanian experience was a major reason the Nicaraguan people voted to oust the Sandanistas: they had a glimpse of what can happen to an innocent population when the United States decides to take on an objectionable regime.
Shocked and overcome with grief, Donahue and his wife made the difficult decision to leave Panama. “We didn’t want to,” he recalls. “It’s where we wanted to be, where we should be. But the country was not the same.” The death of Chelin’s brother, the terror during the bombing, the scarcity of quality medical care, and the bare subsistence wages provided by Fe y Alegria all contributed to the decision. Such was the state of upheaval at the American embassy that it took almost six months to get permission to leave.
The Donahues moved in briefly with one of his sisters in Morton Grove last July, and he found work as an aide to his old boss Miguel del Valle, now a state senator. Later the family got an Albany Park apartment. In October Donahue became director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Donahue’s office on South Wabash is plain and uncluttered–just a few pictures on the wall along with a framed copy of one of the appeals for donations the coalition occasionally runs in the press. This one has a large picture of Jesus and the words “Why do you worship a homeless person on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
Donahue fairly bubbles with ideas to alleviate the plight of the homeless. “I’ve seen what can happen when people decide to make a difference. I saw it in Panama when we got fresh water. I saw it in the mountains when we started the fish farms. I saw it in the Park District fight. It isn’t that confrontations achieve all that by themselves. But acting together has a tremendous empowering effect on the people involved.”
Among other things, he would like to see the transfer of large numbers of the General Assistance population to the social security disability program. A demonstration project involving 1,700 GA recipients in just such a transfer saved the state $6 million over a two-year period. The major reason the shift hasn’t been undertaken on a broader scale is the initial cost and difficulty of making the switch. He proposes that some of the 14 currently empty hospitals in Chicago be used to house the homeless. He supports the effort to rehab the Lawson YMCA, the largest single-room-occupancy (SRO) facility in Chicago; more than half of the SROs in the city were torn down in the last 15 years. And, along with the Chicago Industrial Community Coalition, he hopes to see Chicago’s empty factories put to innovative new uses–growing organic foods and perhaps even raising catfish, creating a host of low-skilled jobs. Already operating under the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless umbrella is HOME (Homeless on the Move for Equality), a new advocacy group staffed entirely by homeless people.
Donahue doesn’t spend a lot of time in the office. He is often out making contacts, listening to what people are saying–and not saying. Unlike some cause-driven organizers, he has a light, sociable side that quickly puts people at ease. His recent visit to a small shelter on South Escanaba led to an extremely personal, freewheeling conversation with the shelter’s director, Katie Milton. They talked about overcoming resentments, taking personal responsibility for their mistakes, dealing with grief, and the benefits of meditation. Milton explained how she got into the often thankless, never orderly homeless-shelter business a few years ago because she wanted to contribute in the time allotted to her. “I’d like to leave a little legacy,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to make the transition [die] without helping along the way.” Donahue talked about his own parents, their concern for his retarded sister, how they found ways to be useful well past retirement age. By the time he left, they were like old friends looking forward to their next chat.
“That’s the intriguing thing about John,” says Paula Backas, director of the Community Emergency Shelter. “He really listens well, and there’s this inner calmness about him, a sense of peace.”
Yet more often it’s his other side, the never-take-no-for-an-answer side, that marks his public persona. When the city began expelling the homeless from the O’Hare Airport terminals last fall, Donahue and the coalition screamed. “Without any consultation, during the first cold snap of the year, the nighttime lock down was ordered,” he wrote in the coalition newsletter. “That night five people were arrested for trespassing. Most of the homeless people looked for alternatives, including riding the subway all night. One of the first persons to die on the street from the cold on the week the airport was closed . . . had regularly sought refuge at O’Hare.” He marshaled his arguments against the move. “First, because it is part of a dangerous nationwide backlash that has sought to criminalize homelessness. Second, because it is part of a city policy to improve its ‘image’ by hiding the homeless, closing public places and exposing them to the danger of death from the cold. Third, the O’Hare program has served only a small percentage of the homeless at O’Hare while scattering the rest of them throughout the city.”
Not all homeless advocates found that reasoning cogent. Sister Connie Driscoll, who runs Saint Martin de Porres House, one of the largest shelters for homeless and battered women on the south side, said sensationalistic accusations are not the best way to proceed. “For three years just about everybody has agreed that something had to be done about O’Hare,” she declared. “It’s terrible to have those people isolated out there. They need to be integrated into the larger society.” She debated the issue with Donahue on a television show, urging concerned persons to look at the problem more realistically. Some advocates, she noted, “have never spent a week or even a night in a shelter and don’t know what it’s all about.” She hastened to add that her comment was not directed at Donahue or the coalition, which, she said, was on the whole doing “a magnificent job” of raising the issues.
Donahue pounds his point home relentlessly. “We can put on wars that cost billions a day,” he said at a recent rally. “We put up multimillion-dollar sports stadiums with tax dollars. And we can’t find a way to give people a decent chance? Better than half the homeless have full-time or part-time jobs and they’re still homeless!” He cites the case of Miguel, a Mexican man he knows with a wife and five young children who was making $11 an hour at the Sara Lee plant until it closed last December. He is now earning $4.50 an hour at a neighborhood supermarket. “He can’t afford his two-bedroom apartment at that rate. That man and his family are going to be out in the street just like a lot of other people who work or want to work. Something is wrong with our society.”
Juancho is well paid (for the first time in his life), and he has a loving wife, five lively children, a decent home, even a car (a battered 1984 Toyota Celica). Yet as he talks about his life, he seems a bit embarrassed by such luxury. This is not the way the truly poor live. He is uneasy with so much security, and he wonders why the rest of us can dismiss the have-nots so casually. “If you think the crime rate is high now,” he says, “wait until the impact of the cuts is felt. People will survive. We can advance Miguel a couple thousand dollars a year to help him through hard times, or we can start spending $25,000 a year to support him in prison. Those are the choices, and somebody’s got to get the message across.”