Ashley Paige Allen’s experience with homelessness began as a child, when her father was sent to prison, leaving her mother to raise three children alone. It was difficult to pay rent and bills with the $8 hourly wage her mother earned as a retail clerk. Ashley and her family spent more than a decade living in family shelters, doubled-up with relatives, or in low-rent housing and hotels to keep a roof over their heads. Ashley now holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in her field. A passion for working with teens, Ashley works for Horizons for Youth and serves on the CCH College Scholarship selection committee. She co-chairs the EMBODI Initiative through Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a male mentoring program. Ashley is a proud homeowner, active in improving the city’s Bronzeville community.
Leeanna Majors learned a great deal from her experience with homelessness. As a prostitution survivor, low self-esteem was her greatest enemy. Her first step to recovery was learning to care for herself. She is motivated to talk about her life experience because she wants people to understand how we can come together and make change. She has seen that after people hear her story, see her face, and understand that her face is the face of many, they can believe in their ability to make a difference.
Charles Austin joined CCH after he attended a 2006 rally on the SMART Act, an alternative sentencing initiative advocated by CCH and enacted by the state of Illinois. Charles became active at CCH as an advocate. He has worked tirelessly with the Reentry Project to ease joblessness and homelessness for those reentering into society after incarceration. Charles explains, “Being a formerly homeless and incarcerated person, these issues have a direct impact on my life.”
Charles Jenkins has been active at CCH for more than a decade. He became involved during shelter outreach, buoyed by the realization that “good people are out there fighting for change.” After getting involved in an effort to create affordable housing, Charles was inspired to address his homelessness. A long-time community activist, Charles is a family man who enjoys challenging an audience to get involved in the fight to end homelessness.
Cassie Sahler was 17 when she became an “unaccompanied youth” – homeless and on her own, without a parent or guardian, after the sudden death of her mother. Living near Joliet, Cassie couch-surfed with friends before moving to Chicago. She lived on the street before finding help from several youth and housing providers. Cassie was active with the Lakeview Action Coalition and a leader in CCH’s former HELLO youth group. Cassie is glad to be a part of the Speakers Bureau because connecting with people can change views on poverty and homelessness.
Marilyn Escoe became homeless with her four children after losing her job. Her family was moved into a shelter 16 miles from the children’s Chicago Public elementary school. Marilyn found a new part-time job, but her children struggled with a very-early morning commute to school. The CCH Law Project helped Marilyn talk to school officials about providing a bus service to and from school. Marilyn and her oldest daughter, Kaleyah, volunteer with the CCH Education Committee because they want to help parents and children who have gone through the same situation. Currently, Marilyn works as an aide for a school bus company and at New Life Interim Housing in Rogers Park. Marilyn recently graduated from culinary school, where she trained for employment in the food industry.
Gloria Davis grew up on Chicago’s South Side of Chicago in the Robert Taylor public housing projects. While growing up, Gloria witnessed violence and hardship in her neighborhood. She became involved with drugs, a struggle she lived with for many years. In 2013, Gloria became homeless and entered treatment at the Haymarket Center. Since then, Gloria has advocated with CCH for an increase in the state minimum wage and with the Reentry Project. Gloria has talked to dozens of legislators about measures that would end barriers to housing and work for ex-offenders. Gloria wants to be “a voice for those who feel they have no voice.”
Kaleyah Wesley was 12 years old when her family moved from North Lawndale to a shelter in Rogers Park. School was a two-hour commute there and back. Because her mother had to get to work early, Kaleyah had three siblings to shepherd to and from school. She struggled to balance school and home life, dealing with the fear of being judged by her peers while working hard to maintain her grades. When she and her mother were introduced to CCH, Kaleyah learned that she had rights as a homeless student. “That gave me hope,” she said. With that knowledge and utilizing school resources available to her, Kaleyah graduated the salutatorian of her 8th grade class. Now 17 and a junior in high school, Kaleyah published her first novel, Caught Up. Her family secured their own subsidized apartment two years ago. Kaleyah is active with the CCH Education Committee, working to make sure all homeless students are able to succeed in school.
Sentenced at age 15, Dalmanic Ali Simmons pursued an education in prison so that he could start a new life after his release. Dalmanic earned a General Equivalency Degree (GED), an associate degree in liberal arts from Lakeland Community College, and vocational certificates in custodial maintenance and diesel power technology. Released in 2014, Dalmanic secured a janitorial job. He also accessed transitional housing and reentry services at St. Leonard’s Ministries, where he met a CCH organizer doing outreach. Dalmanic volunteers with the CCH Reentry Project, drawing upon his experiences to advocate for programs that remove barriers after incarceration. Dalmanic says he is inspired by “anything that’s going to improve conditions for everybody.”
Sonovia Petty is raising two school-age sons. She reentered the community after incarceration in 2009 and found herself homeless. She was also recovering from a drug addiction she had been fighting for years. During this transition, Sonovia has worked hard to care for her sons and find a safe place for their family to live. After a year of moving from shelter to shelter, Sonovia secured her own apartment and works several part-time jobs. She advocates for formerly incarcerated people reentering society, fighting for affordable housing to end homelessness for every one.
Lorenzo Rowell experiences as a homeless youth stemmed from an unstable home life. When he was 8 years old, Lorenzo and his little sister were taken from their mother by child welfare officials and placed into foster care. In his early teens, Lorenzo ran away from a foster home and reunited with his grandmother. Her failing health left him homeless in his late teens. Lorenzo met CCH organizers through the youth activism group. He was among HELLO members who met with Mayor Richard Daley in 2010, persuading him to start overnight shelters for youth and a citywide task force on homeless youth. Now married and the father of a young son, Lorenzo’s family is stably housed in Michigan City, Ind., where he and his wife hold minimum-wage jobs.
Photos of Ashley Allen, Leeanna Majors, Charles Austin, Charles Jenkins, and Cassie Sahler were taken through a partnership with StoryCorps.