Formerly homeless tenant sues, class action challenges collection of unlawful attorney’s fees

Complaint contends property managers and debt collectors unlawfully seek attorney’s fees when evicting tenants, in violation of Chicago’s landlord-tenant ordinance.

Chicago – A formerly homeless tenant filed a federal class action lawsuit Friday against Draper & Kramer, Inc., a property management company, and IQ Data, Inc., a debt collector.

Plaintiff Yasmine Lamar is represented by attorneys from the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) and the National Consumer Law Center. They argue on behalf of a class that Draper & Kramer sought unlawful attorney’s fees in connection with her eviction and that IQ Data sought to collect those fees in violation of state and federal consumer protection laws.

Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance prohibits landlords from charging attorney’s fees in connection with an eviction, yet Ms. Lamar alleges she was charged nearly $500 in fees. Ms. Lamar also alleges that the unlawful debt was reported to credit bureaus, damaging her credit.

The lawsuit alleges that this practice is widespread and could impact hundreds of tenants.

“Unlawful fees, like the ones charged by the defendants, make it that much harder for Chicago tenants to access and maintain stable housing,” said Mary Frances Charlton, a CCH attorney representing Ms. Lamar.

“Some former tenants may have paid attorney fees they don’t owe as a result of this unlawful practice,” said Charles Delbaum, a senior staff attorney also representing Ms. Lamar for the National Consumer Law Center.

Ms. Lamar described how the alleged collection practices impacted her life, saying that debt collectors “have called me from numerous numbers after being blocked, telling me that I always have excuses for not paying my debt, even though I don’t owe them attorney’s fees. This has made a very stressful time in my life much worse.”

Ms. Lamar and the class are seeking actual and punitive damages for what is alleged to be widespread violations of consumer protection laws.

 

January media reports: Panhandling; Illinois unemployed may lose food stamps; CityPak; and Uptown tent city

January 15, 2020

Daily Herald: DuPage, state police won’t enforce panhandling prohibition while lawsuit is pending

By Robert Sanchez

A state law prohibiting roadside panhandling won’t be enforced by Illinois State Police and the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office until a federal lawsuit challenging the law is resolved.

Michael Dumiak and Christopher Simmons filed the lawsuit in August 2019 against state police Director Brendan Kelly, DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin and the village of Downers Grove. The plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that they have the free-speech right to ask for help.

State police and the state’s attorney office on Tuesday agreed to a preliminary injunction prohibiting them from enforcing a section of a state law that bars asking drivers for money for the duration of the litigation.

“For now, our clients and many others will be able to exercise their First Amendment right to ask for help without interference from the state police,” said Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU, one of the lawyers in the case. “In the long term, we hope that the court agrees with us that this statute is unconstitutional and may not be enforced at all.”

Officials with the DuPage state’s attorney’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Dumiak and Simmons are being represented by the ACLU of Illinois, the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and the law firm of Schiff Hardin…

Link to the full report

January 10, 2020

Chicago Tribune: 50,000 Cook County residents will lose food stamps if they don’t find work soon, and the clock is ticking

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

Richard Butler’s life hasn’t unfolded as he once imagined it would. As a child he dreamed of being a cartoonist, or maybe a singer or entrepreneur. Instead, he spent time in prison for burglarizing a car, experienced bouts of homelessness, and has struggled with mental health issues he says make it difficult to hold down a job.

Richard Butler stays at a friend’s apartment on South Halsted Street in Chicago. Butler could be impacted by new work requirements imposed on food stamp recipients. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as food stamps — provides Butler with $194 per month to put toward groceries. It helps him get by.

So Butler, 25, was shocked when he learned work requirements now in effect in Cook County could threaten those benefits.

“I’m in a situation where I don’t have anything,” said Butler, who is jobless and sleeps on an air mattress at a friend’s home in Englewood. “The least the government can do is help me eat.”

The clock started ticking Jan. 1 for about 50,000 food stamp recipients in Cook County who are now limited to three months of benefits over three years, unless they work, volunteer or participate in job training for at least 20 hours a week. Part of federal law since the 1990s, the work rules have been waived in Cook County for more than a decade but as of this year must be imposed because of the county’s low unemployment rate.

The work requirements apply only to adults aged 18 to 49 who are considered able-bodied and don’t have dependents; the majority of the county’s 826,000 food stamp recipients won’t be affected.

But there are grave concerns that the state’s workforce development system isn’t equipped to help such a large number of people find jobs, and that many individuals might not learn the rules exist until their benefits are cut off.

The state’s Department of Human Services mailed notices in December alerting people to the change, but many are homeless or change addresses frequently, and won’t know that they need to meet the requirements or seek exemptions for qualifying disabilities, said Mary Frances Charlton, youth health attorney at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless…

…Charlton, the attorney for homeless youth, said she believes Butler qualifies for a mental health exemption from the work requirements, and is helping him file that paperwork. But social service providers worry many SNAP recipients with qualifying disabilities will be cut off from benefits before they realize they need to seek a waiver.

Link to the full report

January 10, 2020

Billboard: Leader of the Pak: Paradigm agent Ron Kaplan delivers custom backpacks to the neediest among us

By Christopher Weingarten

….The video was filmed by Citypak founder Ron Kaplan — an agent at Paradigm Talent Agency whose clients include Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, the Steve Miller Band, Lyle Lovett and Joss Stone — while he was on vacation in Maui in December and spotted Strauss.

Kaplan has grown accustomed to seeing Citypaks in action far from his current home base in Los Angeles. Strauss’ backpack was one of over 64,000 Citypak has distributed in 142 cities and three continents since the charity’s launch in 2012…

…Kaplan’s search for a more personal connection led to a relationship with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). That’s when the idea for Citypak took hold: “A very typical scenario was that everyday [homeless] people would come in for services, get food, recycled clothing, toiletries, but they never had anything to carry their stuff in,” says Kaplan. “I thought, ‘Has anyone ever devised a way to create a backpack specifically designed for the needs of the homeless?'”

Kaplan shared the idea with the owner of adventure luggage company High Sierra, who promptly put his design team on the project. After getting the first samples of the bags — inspired by the rugged knapsacks and ponchos that soldiers used in World War II — Kaplan asked CCH to help him gather a focus group of homeless Chicagoans for lunch and a chat.

As Kaplan recalls, “Everyone flipped out. They’re saying, ‘This is a lifesaver, this is exactly what we need!’ ” Members of the focus group also gave Kaplan some crucial suggestions, like adding a waterproof pouch to the bags to protect identification and hospital records. There are also no zippers on the bag’s exterior, says Kaplan, where they might “get rusted or broken.”…

Link to the full report

January 3, 2020

Streetsblog Chicago: Homeless tents have returned next to Uptown bike lanes likely built to displace them

By John Greenfield

In late 2017, after years of complaints from Uptown residents to 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman about tent cities in the Lawrence and Wilson avenue viaducts under Lake Shore Drive, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed bike lanes on the sidewalks. While so I’ve found no smoking gun proving that the city’s motivation for building the cycling infrastructure was to prevent homeless people from returning to the underpasses afterwards, it’s highly probable that was at least a factor in the decision.

Ironically, that defensive architecture strategy isn’t even working. As of this afternoon there were two tents on the south sidewalk of Lawrence, and three or four tents plus a couch and a shopping cart on the north sidewalk of Wilson. While the green bike lanes are largely clear, the encampments basically render the pedestrian portion of the sidewalk unusable. That isn’t a big deal this time of year since bike and pedestrian traffic is light, but could lead to conflicts during the warmer months…

…Former residents of the tent city, represented by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Law Project, previously sued the city over the issue, arguing that the installation of the bike lanes was discriminatory against the homeless because it was done with the sole purpose of displacing them. The lawsuit also asserted that the design of the bikeways is dangerous…

Still, Dworkin said, the practice of building sidewalk bike lanes in viaducts makes it more difficult to defend the rights of homeless people to camp there, since the tents are, in fact, blocking the public way. “We feel like there’s just not that much we can do, except asking the city not to handle homelessness this way. It’s clearly not a productive way to to handle it — you’re just chasing people off to the next spot.”

Dworkin, who commutes by bike herself, said there were also homeless people sleeping in the Metra viaduct on Randolph Street between Canal and Clinton streets in the West Loop before CDOT installed a sidewalk bike lane there in 2016. “It’s a terrible design,” she said. At rush hour you’ve got to bike through crowds of people on Randolph crossing Canal.”

On top of that, it would have been relatively easy to create protected bike lanes on the street, rather than the sidewalk, in all of these viaducts. Lawrence, Wilson, and Randolph all have multiple travel lanes, which likely provides more capacity than is needed for the amount of motor vehicle traffic they carry, which encourages speeding. So converting mixed-traffic lanes to bike lanes instead of placing the bikeways on the sidewalks would have made everyone safer, bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike.

Link to the full report

State, DuPage County will not enforce panhandling law as lawsuit moves forward

Illinois State Police and the DuPage County States Attorney’s Office have agreed to stop enforcing a state law prohibiting roadside panhandling in Illinois while a lawsuit challenging the law moves forward.

Clients Michael Dumiak and Christopher Simmons filed the lawsuit in August 2019, represented by the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), ACLU of Illinois, and the law firm of Schiff Hardin.

State police and the DuPage states attorney’s office agreed to a preliminary injunction, filed Jan. 14 by U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman in Chicago. Under the injunction, the agencies may not enforce a section of a state statute that bars asking for money from people in vehicles during the duration of the litigation.

“For now, our clients and many others will be able to exercise their First Amendment right to ask for help without interference from the state police,” said Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU, one of the lawyers in the case. “In the long term, we hope that the court agrees with us that this statute is unconstitutional and may not be enforced at all.”

Mr. Duimiak and Mr. Simmons sued after they were punished for asking for help when they panhandled in suburban Downers Grove. The men stood on a raised median strip seeking donations from people in vehicles stopped at the intersection of Butterfield and Finley roads.

Both men were charged under an Illinois statute that makes it a misdemeanor to stand on a median to solicit contributions, employment, business, or rides from passing vehicles. The statute does not prohibit other interactions with drivers and passengers, such as gathering petition signatures or distributing leaflets. It allows municipalities to exempt certain charities from the law, even as local police enforce it against individuals who ask for money for their own use.

A similar Downers Grove ordinance was rescinded shortly after the two men named the village in their lawsuit.

“Our clients were ticketed for panhandling when it was cold outside and they needed money to seek shelter,” said CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell. “They were charged fines they couldn’t be expected to pay and one had to spend a night in jail because of a ticket. We hope this will prevent others from being prosecuted for asking for help.”

Staff Attorney Arturo Hernandez co-counsels the case for CCH.

For more information, contact:

CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell

diane@chicagohomeless.org

 

ACLU of Illinois

Edwin Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy

eyohnka@aclu-il.org

 

WBBM Newsradio “At Issue” – Advocates for the homeless explode some myths about the problem & solutions

Political Editor Craig Dellimore talks with Doug Schenkelberg, the head of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Richard Ducantanzeiler, director of the provider agency Franciscan Outreach, about the depth — and variety — of homelessness. They also talk about what the city is doing…and what everyday people can do to help.

LINK to the radio interview

Said Doug Schenkelberg, “We’re hoping to work with this administration to create a new dedicated funding stream that can create permanent housing with supports, that’s needed to begin to make measurable progress on the problem.”

Ezvid Wiki: 5 groups helping people in Chicago succeed

Rising inequality means that despite our best intentions, some people in America aren’t given the same opportunities as others. Problems like food deserts and mass incarceration contribute to the cycle of poverty, but luckily there are some amazing organizations in Chicago working to ensure that no one is left behind. These groups focus on both youth and adults to provide job training, support, and advocacy in areas where it is most needed.

Highlighted in the video are the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Growing Home, UCAN, Jane Addams Resource Center, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago.

LINK to the video

Introducing Special Projects Organizer Claudia Cabrera

This month Claudia Cabrera was named Special Projects Organizer, managing the work of our Speakers Bureau and a creative writing outreach program, Horizons. We asked Claudia to introduce herself.

My passion for social justice comes from my lived experience as a Latinx immigrant female and the struggles I have witnessed through my community experience.

Claudia Cabrera
Portrait by Claire Sloss

At a young age I witnessed my parents risk their lives in hopes of a better future for their children. Chasing the American dream, they left behind everything they owned and everyone they loved in Mexico.

I don’t recall a time that my parents did not work multiple jobs. They still found themselves struggling to make ends meet.

We experienced homelessness many times, doubling up with relatives in order to live adequately. My parents lived in fear of being deported, so they avoided reaching out for help or resources. Education was extremely important to my family, but higher education was never talked about because it seemed financially out of reach.

In 2012, after a close family member passed away from an aggressive case of cancer, it made me re-evaluate my life path. I decided to pursue my education. I enrolled in college classes at St. Augustine while attending GED night classes. In 2018, graduating as valedictorian, I completed my bachelor’s degree in social work. I decided to continue my educational journey.

After a challenging but fulfilling year, I finished my master’s in social work (MSW), graduating with highest honors from Dominican University. Pursuing higher education completely altered my frame of mind and highlighted the importance of advocacy.

It was during my education that I learned about community organizing through an internship with the CCH Reentry Project. I worked hands-on with people and was able to see the development of grassroots leaders, from beginning to end.

I also learned that grassroots leaders are already equipped with the tools to make a change. My role as an organizer is to provide guidance and support. I’m excited to continue this journey as I coordinate the Speakers Bureau and Horizons. Together with our leaders, we will raise awareness about homelessness in different communities.

CCH champions a complete census count

With the 2020 Census almost here, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is helping ensure that homeless children, youth, and adults across Illinois are counted. This includes offering new CCH outreach materials aimed at informing those experiencing homelessness.

As one of 42 partner organizations with Forefront’s IL Count Me In 2020 program, CCH is providing outreach and education to support a fair and accurate count among hard-to-count communities.

Our message? People experiencing homelessness count, too!

As part of this initiative, CCH organizers and attorneys are providing census education at shelters, schools, drop-in centers, and events across Chicago in the months leading up to Census Day on April 1, 2020. This includes targeted outreach to homeless families, students, unaccompanied youth, and single adults; promoting the census to shelter providers; and distributing outreach materials. Between now and March 2020, we anticipate educating about 750 homeless people and 850 service providers as well as distributing more than 7,000 census-related handouts.

Our focus? To emphasize why a complete count is critical and inform people how to participate if they’re homeless.

“I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that our people step up and our counted,” said Gloria Davis, CCH’s Census 2020 project manager. “Past undercounting of people who are homeless is one of the reasons we have such a shortage of services for our community. We are hoping to change that.”

The U.S. Census Bureau invites most households to respond through the mail, but the process looks different for those without a permanent roof over their heads. To make sure this hard-to-count group isn’t overlooked, CCH staff designed census outreach materials tailored specifically for people experiencing homelessness.

A fact sheet covers all the basics — what the census is, when it’s happening, and why it matters. It also outlines the steps a homeless person can take to make sure they’re counted, whether they are living in a shelter, on the street, or doubled-up with a friend or relative.

Two other new pieces of outreach material — a poster as well as a palm card — provide a similar census overview for people experiencing homelessness.

Help us make sure all Illinoisans are counted in the 2020 Census, no matter their housing status:

Questions about the census? Contact Gloria Davis, Census 2020 Project Manager, at gloria@chicagohomeless.org or (312) 641-4140.

– Erin Sindewald, Development Manager

November/December media reports: Cold weather impacts Chicago’s homeless, Uptown displacement, Homeless Memorial

December 19, 2019

Block Club Chicago: ‘If We Don’t Remember Them, Who Will?’ : Service Honors Those Who Died While Homeless in Chicago This Year

“We’re the most vulnerable people in the city and nobody thinks about us and then we die. … Somebody has to represent that population and remember them.”

By Helena Duncan

WEST LOOP — On a frigid Tuesday evening, activists, parishioners and people experiencing homelessness filled the pews of Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop.

It was the ninth Chicago Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial, a collaboration among the Chicago Coalition for the HomelessFranciscan Outreach, the Ignatian Spirituality Project, Old St. Patrick’s Church and the musical nonprofit Harmony, Hope & Healing.

The service honors the lives of those who died in Chicago this year while experiencing homelessness. Sixty-six names were printed in this year’s bulletin, along with “those whose names are known only to God.”

Keith Freeman, senior organizer for the Coalition for the Homeless, helped compile the list of people who had died while homeless in 2019 by speaking with shelters, homeless services providers, family members and friends.

“We’re the most vulnerable people in the city and nobody thinks about us and then we die,” said Freeman, who was formerly homeless. “They still don’t think about us. So somebody has to represent that population and remember them because they were great people.” …

… Leanna Majors clapped and sang along to the music and filmed parts of the service on her phone. Her reason for attending was simple: “To remember the homeless that have passed on is really important. If we don’t remember them, who will?”

The service was also a call to action. Freeman echoed Harris’ message, saying people who want to help the homeless must become politically involved by contacting elected officials to “move different campaigns and proposals forward to help increase funding and resources for the homeless population.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign, backed by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, is one such proposal, calling for a dedicated revenue stream to reduce homelessness and build more affordable housing by raising the city’s real estate transfer tax on the sale of high-end homes…

Link to the full report

December 17, 2019

ABC7 Chicago: Chicago homeless living in Uptown tent city say city has targeted them for years

By Evelyn Holmes

CHICAGO (WLS) — Residents of the tent city underneath the viaduct at Wilson Avenue and Lake Shore Drive in Uptown say the city of Chicago has tried to kick them out for years, but they’re not moving without a fight.

Members of that homeless community said no one wants to live on the street; they only do because they have to, and they need safe, affordable housing in order to get off the streets. Now those residents say they may now have one less concern after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider whether state and local governments can make it a crime for people to sleep outside.

“It’s not a crime to live in a tent,’ said Thomas Gordon, Uptown tent city mayor. “It’s not a crime to be homeless. But you come out and harass us all the time.”

Although the 9th Circuit Court decision affects states out west, Patricia Nix-Hodes with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless said the court’s decision has reach, and is both a victory and an opportunity.

“So it doesn’t necessarily address every single thing that a city might do that would harass someone who is homeless, but I think the concept, the analysis, does apply,” she said.

The people who live under the Uptown viaduct said their presence has been disputed for years. They accused the city of illegally targeting the homeless for removal, but city officials said while being homeless isn’t a crime there has to be a balance between the rights of the homeless and the community.

“So we do come in and we clean because it’s healthy for the participants who are living there to be in a clean environment,” said Alisa Rodriguez, deputy commissioner for the Department of Family and Support Services.

While city officials said they’ve always maintained a commitment to respecting the rights of this vulnerable population, homeless advocates like Joseph Peery said what’s needed is more affordable housing.

“If your only crime is you’re poor, that’s no crime,” he said.

Link to the full report & video

November 13, 2019

Block Club Chicago: ‘It’s going to be a long winter’: As Chicago’s homeless navigate extreme cold, advocacy group urges city to do more

By Mina Bloom

AVONDALE — On Monday, which saw record-breaking low temperatures, Lisa Johnson was bundled up in two shirts, two sweatshirts, three pairs of pants and two jackets.

Johnson lives underneath the viaduct at Belmont Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway along with about a dozen other people experiencing homelessness. She said she’s been “thinking a lot lately” about what this winter has in store for her.

“I do worry. October it snowed, and it’s so cold already. I keep saying: It’s going to be a long winter,” Johnson said…

…Mary Tarullo, associate director of policy and strategy at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the city isn’t doing enough to keep people like Johnson safe in the extreme cold.

“Homelessness is a problem with a clear solution and that solution is housing,” Tarullo said. “The city is woefully behind when it comes to funding [that housing.]”

Tarullo’s group has been pushing the city to adopt its Bring Chicago Home plan for over a year. The plan calls for raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales and then using that money to fund affordable housing and homeless services…

…Tarullo said hand warmers and hot meals only go so far, especially when a polar vortex hits.

“The city does acknowledge when the temperature drops and that they need to increase their services but without a significant amount of funding to actually give people what they need to survive the winter and to survive year-round, there’s only so much you can do,” she said…

…“We’ve been working on this structural solution — Bring Chicago Home — for over a year now. We’ve been fighting for this with urgency. This solution is within our reach and we need it to happen immediately,” Tarullo said.

“We cannot go another year without a dedicated revenue stream for homelessness in Chicago.”

Link to the full report

November 12, 2019

Reuters: Chicago’s cold blast spells concern for the city’s homeless

By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Homeless advocates in Chicago were closely monitoring wind chill temperatures on Tuesday as an early season blast of arctic air swept across the eastern two-thirds of the United States.

The city of Chicago, where 86,000 homeless people live, opened its six warming shelters over the last few days as unseasonably cold temperatures dipped into the teens with wind chills into the single digits during the morning, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

“It’s incredibly concerning that we are experiencing this level of cold this early in the season,” said Doug Schenkelberg, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless…

… About 16,000 people sleep each night on the Chicago streets and shelters, Schenkelberg said. He added that the key to dealing with homelessness in extreme weather conditions ultimately is finding permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

“It’s never an easy time to be homeless regardless of the weather and when you add extreme weather like this into the mix, it makes life that much more difficult for people experiencing it,” he said.

Link to the full report

 

November 9, 2019

USA Today: Chicago weather – arctic blast to affect more than 80,000 experiencing homelessness

While double-digit temperatures may be balmy by Chicago standards, cold fronts this early in the season could be particularly challenging for the more than 80,000 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness.

By Grace Hauck

A record-breaking cold front is expected to sweep across the U.S. from Sunday into Tuesday, with freezing temperatures stretching as far south as parts of the Gulf Coast.

The National Weather Service is forecasting more than 170 potential record-setting cold high temperatures Monday to Wednesday…

… While double-digit temperatures may be balmy by Chicago standards, cold fronts this early in the season could be particularly challenging for the more than 80,000 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness.

“This type of weather starting this early in the season makes their lives that much more difficult,” said Doug Schenkelberg, director of the advocacy group Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Link to the full report

 

November 5, 2019

Associated Press: Strike-ending deal will shape Chicago schools for years

By Kathleen Foody

Chicago teachers and more than 300,000 students affected by an 11-day strike returned to classrooms Friday amid a tentative agreement that ended the walkout and is expected to shape education in the nation’s third-largest city for the next five years…

…The tentative agreement also includes phased-in hiring of additional staff for the city’s neediest schools. Principals working with other school employees will decide what type of position is needed at their school, including counselors or librarians…

…”I do think this agreement reinforces the symbolic idea that teachers have a critical role to play in ensuring the broader well-being of the students and communities they’re serving,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at the University of California Los Angeles. “That work emerged from the strike stronger.”

The district also agreed to hire staff at schools with high numbers of students who are homeless, dedicated to making sure they are getting services required under federal law.

Enshrining those positions in a labor contract is believed to be a national first, said Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“I think it’s visionary,” she said. “A significant number of students in Chicago Public Schools are dealing with homelessness and housing instability, and you can’t separate that from their education.”..

Link to the full report

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Chicago homeless memorial to honor pair who became volunteer leaders

There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of service providers and advocacy groups has tried to make sure those lives are recognized.

By Mark Brown, columnist

Robert Rohdenburg and Robert Whited are two of the people I normally might have expected to see at the Chicago Homeless Persons Memorial this Tuesday evening at Old St. Patrick’s Church.

The two men overcame homelessness and became eager advocates for others in their situation, finding purpose in their lives by volunteering in support of affordable housing efforts.

Unfortunately, instead of joining in the prayers this year, Rohdenburg and Whited are among the dead who will be recognized at the annual service that seeks to honor the homeless men and women who lost their lives in the previous year.

There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of homeless service providers and advocacy groups has gathered whatever names and information they can find to make sure those lives are recognized.

The names are read aloud. A candle is lit for each.

It can be a haunting ceremony, especially coming during the Christmas season.

It’s also an important reminder that the people we call “the homeless” are really a collection of individuals from different backgrounds and with different challenges, not unlike the rest of us.

I met Rohdenburg in 2013 when the Chateau Hotel in Lakeview was in its death throes.

The Chateau was one of many North Side single-room occupancy, or SRO, hotels bought by developers over the past decade and remade into upscale apartments for young professionals…

Robert Whited, at right in stocking cap, at a Cubs game with a group from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, for which he became an active volunteer. He was part of a group seeking to improve conditions for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Link to the full report

… Though their backgrounds were different, Whited’s story had similarities to Rohdenburg’s. He’d been homeless, living on the street or doubled-up with friends, for many years, that is when he wasn’t detained at the Cook County Jail on minor offenses.

Whited had substance-abuse issues and health problems that included diabetes. He also was dealing with complications from a bad case of frostbite.

Last winter, he got involved through the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in a group working to improve the situation of individuals re-entering the community from jail or prison.

Like Rohdenburg, Whited threw himself at the chance to make a contribution, accompanying the group on four trips to Springfield to lobby legislators. Unlike most people placed in that situation, he wasn’t intimidated, either.

“The moment he saw a legislator, he just ran to catch up with them,” said Bisma Shoukat, an organizer for the coalition.

Whited even chaired the last meeting he attended with the re-entry group.

“You could just see how excited he was to be a leader,” Shoukat said.

… As the two Roberts remind us, every life deserves recognition.

Link to the full report

Derrick is on track with a new job – and soon, a home

Derrick Lyons is grateful for a life and career that are on track after years of being homeless.

He credits rediscovering his faith and his voice, including his volunteer work as a community leader with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Derrick Lyons at The Hatchery Chicago

“I thought it was the end of the road,” Derrick says of life two years ago. “I was so depressed… I took a big look at myself and thought you know what, something has to change.

“I started going to church, and then I joined CCH, where there are people fighting to end homelessness. That kind of encouraged me, until I started working again.”

In April, Derrick landed a position as kitchen facilitator at The Hatchery, a new food and beverage business incubator on Chicago’s West Side. He applied after asking for a referral from the men’s shelter where he lived, Breakthrough Urban Ministries.

With an associate degree from Malcolm X College and certificates in culinary and kitchen sanitation, Derrick finally landed the full-time job opportunity he’d trained for. Now living with a cousin, helping to care for her ailing mother, Derrick hopes to overcome community reentry barriers to secure an apartment of his own.

Derrick first experienced homelessness after his family lost their home to foreclosure over a decade ago. Unable to secure full-time work, he could not afford housing.

“I was going to interviews with a big old suitcase. I would make an excuse, saying I had been on a trip, but it was all my clothes,” he recalls.

Derrick last became homeless after fire destroyed his sister’s house five years ago. Over the years he has lived in parks, under a bridge, in abandoned buildings, rode the El overnight, and stayed in nightly shelters. He sometimes doubled-up with friends or relatives, offering to cook and clean in exchange for a place to sleep.

“People will let you stay with them maybe three months, then they ask you to leave,” he says.

Last year, Derrick was encouraged by another Breakthrough resident to meet CCH Senior Organizer Keith Freeman. Through shelter outreach, Keith offers information to people experiencing homelessness, organizing those who are interested to work with him on the Bring Chicago Home housing campaign.

“We were talking about housing and I heard about how Chicago Coalition for the Homeless marched in the Fight for $15. I went to the first meeting and I was like, ‘You got me.’ I didn’t look back,” says Derrick, now a member of the campaign’s Grassroots Leadership Committee.

Helped by service programs that assist adults facing reentry issues, Derrick recently secured court expungement for an old record. He also earned a scholarship to Chicago State University. Working for a degree in health information administration, Derrick commutes two hours each way to attend classes two nights a week. And at his West Side church, Derrick is excited to have been chosen for a solo in the fall choir concert.

“I feel great about myself now,” he says, smiling.

“At 57, I feel that it’s been a long time coming. I finally landed a break. Life is finally changing.”

– Anne Bowhay, Media

– Photos by Allison Williams Photography