Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich – ‘My family is my heart’: How Tavarion Foster made his way from homelessness to college

By Mary Schmich

On a Thursday night in late June, Tavarion Laquon Foster put on his best clothes — khaki pants, black loafers, black shirt buttoned almost to the top — and went downtown to celebrate his college scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Growing up, Tavarion hadn’t thought of himself as homeless. He was 6 years old when he began going to sleep at night without a bed to call his own, but in his mind, moving from home to home, and bed to bed, was just life.

That evening at the scholarship ceremony he sat in the front row, leaning forward to listen to the other winners. It felt good to be with people whose lives weren’t so different from his.

There was a young woman who’d lived in shelters and in homes without hot water. There was a young man who had to switch schools every time he switched houses. One student had moved from Louisiana to her aunt’s home in Evanston only to have the family evicted.

When Tavarion’s moment at the lectern came, he stepped forward and began with thank you’s to the coalition, to his mentor and to the woman snapping photos from one of the guest seats.

Tavarion Foster, 18, with his mother, Shaunte Teague. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

“My beautiful mother,” he told the crowd, without explaining how extraordinary it was that the two of them were in this room, and for this purpose, together.

Chicago Sun-Times, Marlen Garcia: Money shouldn’t decide whether a kid can walk across a graduation stage

It isolates kids from their classmates. It shames them.

By Marlen Garcia, columnist

Geneva Baggett’s family had a milestone event to look forward to this spring.

Her daughter and a niece that Baggett is raising are 8th graders who will graduate next month from McKay School on the Southwest Side.

OPINION

The family’s excitement soon turned to dread. Baggett owed $300 for each child to cover graduation fees. She found out about it weeks ago when the children’s teacher sent home a flyer outlining the fees along with a handwritten note to “verify that these graduation fees” were owed.

The teacher should have included another important piece of information: By law, public school fees, including the costs of graduation ceremonies, must be waived for families who are homeless. Additionally, fees must be waived for kids who are eligible for the federal free lunch and breakfast program. Many school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, waive fees for students who pay reduced prices for lunch and others who live in poverty.

Too many teachers and school administrators across Illinois don’t know about these rules or ignore them. They lead parents to believe that their children won’t be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies if they don’t pay the fees.

Baggett has hit hard times and her family is homeless. She was under the impression that her daughter and niece couldn’t participate in graduation if she didn’t pay the fees. Eventually, she sought assistance from the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which assisted her in getting a fee waiver from the school.

But she still isn’t feeling any sense of relief. The school has asked for more money to cover a graduation trip and luncheon.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

During graduation season, too many families believe they have to decide between covering their rent or paying school fees so their children can be part of graduation ceremonies. But it is against the law to punish a child in any way over unpaid fees if the family can’t afford them. And make no mistake, barring a child from graduation, prom or a Great America trip over unpaid fees is punishment.

It isolates kids from their classmates. It shames them.

Another parent I spoke with, a single mom, said a staff member at Hyde Park Academy High School told her that her son could not participate in that school’s graduation unless she paid fees he had accumulated over four years at the school. She had a bill for $848.

The mom, who asked that her name be withheld, said that after she lost her job she couldn’t keep up with the school’s fees. She said she asked a school administrator if she could get financial assistance but the administrator said no. I reached out to the school’s principal, Antonio Ross, but he didn’t return my call or email.

The woman turned to Google for help and came across the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The organization’s law department specializes in advocating for homeless students and others who live in poverty. A lawyer sent a letter explaining the parent’s situation, and the matter was quickly resolved.

“Schools are usually responsive once they get a letter,” the lawyer, Alyssa Phillips, told me.

Ninety-six percent of the students at Hyde Park come from low-income families, according to Chicago Public Schools. I’m guessing many of those students qualify to have their fees waived. Many families probably don’t know it.

Hyde Park charges students annual fees of $200 for books, lab fees, computer software and other supplies. Families also pay $15 for each school uniform shirt, $20 for a gym uniform and $40 for a cell phone locker. Public school can be pretty expensive. It’s easy to see how a family of modest means could have trouble keeping up.

Each year around this time, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless fields dozens of calls from parents who are broke and worried their children will be barred from graduation over unpaid fees.

Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the coalition’s Law Project, told me there are several schools that have had multiple cases of kids needing assistance for fee waivers in the last two years, including Hyde Park Academy, Kenwood High School, South Shore International High School, Morgan Park High School and Wells High School. The organization also handles cases from students at suburban schools.

Kenwood’s information sheet for Class of 2019 events says, “All existing school fees must be paid before any payments for senior activities will be accepted.” There’s no mention of waivers.

Here’s a reminder to every school: If you’re going to hit parents with invoices or price lists, whether it’s at the start of the school year or before graduation, include a note telling them that if they can’t afford the fees, they should seek a waiver.

Then follow through and help them out.

Marlen Garcia writes a weekly column and is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Chicago Sun-Times: Huge milestone for ex-offenders to access affordable, public housing

Editor’s Note:

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis published this letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times to commend the reentry housing pilot advocated by our CCH Reentry Project. The pilots were implemented through 2017 at both the CHA and the Housing Authority of Cook County.

I want to commend the Chicago Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, which voted recently to permit residents with a criminal conviction on their record an opportunity to access public housing.

It has been a 20-plus year struggle to get to this important milestone.

HUD adopted the “One Strike and You’re Out” Rule in 1996, effectively banning people with criminal records from public housing.

In 2011, then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan sent a letter to all public housing authorities in the U.S., asking them to rethink their admissions criteria and to join HUD in “welcoming these deserving citizens back into our communities.”

In 2014, the CHA Board of Commissioners engaged with a coalition of anti-homelessness advocates, re-entry service providers, and CHA tenants and staff, with support from the mayor’s office to create what become known as the  CHA Reentry Pilot.

Over the past decades we have chipped and whittled away at public housing and affordable housing.  At the same time we have undertaken a construction boom in U.S. government-subsidized housing in the form of prison cells.

Some 2 million people were locked up at the federal, state or local level. Eventually, almost all of them will return to the community. The question of where they will live is an immediate and critical one, and has important consequences for both the ex-offenders and society-at-large.

Ideally, incarceration should change an offenders’ assessment of the benefits and costs of crime in two ways. It should alter their value system, and it should enhance and enrich the options available to returning ex-offenders by offering real alternatives to their lifestyle before incarceration.

Most ex-offenders return to families or friends in their old neighborhoods. Often, this is the environment that helped them get into trouble in the first place. Chances are, they don’t have a job. Chances are they can’t afford first and last month’s rent. That creates the conditions: the lack of stability, the chaos, the poverty, where crime can flourish and where re-incarceration becomes almost inevitable.

I hope that public housing authorities and advocates will follow their example.

Now let us move urgently to creating enough affordable housing so every one of our people in Chicago, and across the nation, have access to a safe, healthy place to stay.

Danny K. Davis, U.S. representative, 7th Congressional District of Illinois

April mainstream media reports: Doubled-up students, homeless encampment removed by neighboring alderman, disabled in city shelters, and more

April 27, 2019

NPR Illinois: The fight over what it means to be homeless — and how that could affect Illinois

By Lee V. Gaines

Just because someone has four walls around them every night, that doesn’t mean they’re housed. That’s what Paul Hamann believes. He’s the president and CEO of the Night Ministry, a Chicago-based non-profit that provides shelter and healthcare services to the homeless.

Hamann said he knows young people who sleep at friends’ homes every night. They’re able to take a shower, and they go to school the next day.

… More than 50,000 students in Illinois were classified as homeless during the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the National Center for Homeless Education. Of those 50,000 students, 83% lived doubled up, about 5% lived in hotels or motels, and fewer than 1% lived unsheltered. Nationally, there were more than  1.3 million homeless students identified by their school districts during the 2016-17 school year, and more than three-quarters of them shared housing with others, according to data from NCHE.

Patricia Nix-Hodes director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said her agency identified more than 80,000 homeless individuals living in Chicago during 2016 — and 80% of them lived doubled up.

“They’re excluded from housing resources for homeless individuals because they’re not considered homeless by HUD even though they are considered homeless by other federal definitions,” Nix-Hodes said.

“So it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t reflect the reality of how people experience homelessness in Illinois and nationally…

Link to the report

April 23, 2019

Block Club Chicago: Alderman’s removal of SW Side homeless encampment dubbed ‘heartless, but he says critics don’t live there. 

By Mauricio Peña

BACK OF THE YARDS — Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) is defending the removal of a homeless encampment in Back of the Yards (outside his 15th Ward), after a Facebook post publicizing the removal efforts was criticized as being “heartless” and promoting a “war on the homeless.

… “These sweeps are harmful, they’re counterproductive and you cannot expect to build trust with people and offer services when (people connecting them to services) come out during these types of sweeps,” CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell said. “It’s dehumanizing and wrong.”

Link to the article

April 17, 2019

Chicago Reader: A chronic problem

By John Greenfield

… Smoky el cars and other homeless-related quality of life issues on the CTA reflect Chicago’s larger problems.

Link to the article

April 10, 2019

Illinois News Network: Progressive income tax plan clears first hurdle

By Greg Bishop

… Niya Kelly, state legislative director for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, spoke in support of the progressive tax during the Senate committee. She said it will give (other) organizations certainty in providing services for the homeless.

“And not have to answer the cruel question of what other things we’ll have to cut in order not to provide them stability,” Kelly said.

Link to the article

April 9, 2019

Chicago Tribune: Questions about how the city homeless shelters handle people with disabilities go unanswered

By Rex Huppke, columnist

There are some well-documented concerns about whether the city of Chicago’s homeless shelters are properly equipped to accommodate homeless people with disabilities.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Chicago woman who claims she was turned away from several shelters because she has rheumatoid arthritis that prevents her from climbing stairs and carrying her own bags….

So I decided to ask the appropriate city office — the Department of Family and Support Services — a series of questions unrelated to the aforementioned lawsuit… Cristina Villarreal, the department’s director of communications, would only answer one question fully — No. 2, the one about shelters that are ADA compliant. In an email back, she wrote: “The city has 5 ADA compliant Shelters across the city and other shelters make reasonable accommodations for residents.”

… I’m just asking city officials to answer some questions and be transparent about how they work with people who constitute a large percentage of Chicago’s homeless population.

If those officials don’t want to answer, or if they want to hide behind a broad interpretation of the “we don’t comment on pending litigation” excuse, that’s up to them.

But I’m going to keep asking the questions. Something tells me there are plenty more to come.

Link to the article

April 5, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times: ‘The Public’ movie examines role libraries play in serving the homeless

By Tony Closson

… For those social workers and librarians, some of whom were present at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless-sponsored screening, Estevez said he wants the film to bring attention to the large responsibilities often placed solely on them.

Link to the article

 

Marguerite Casey Foundation: Maxica Williams – Homeless advocate knows ‘There Is Power in Numbers’

For César Chávez Day, March 31, Marguerite Casey Foundation honored 36 community leaders across the U.S. who are continuing the legacy of the late farmworker and civil rights advocate. Please join in celebrating their work for a more just and equitable society.

Maxica Williams was among those honored after being nominated by CCH.

Maxica Williams

Hero’s name: Maxica Williams

Home city: Chicago

The person’s organization: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH)

Why is this person a community hero?

“As a cancer survivor who has experienced homelessness, Maxica Williams is using her past to fight for a more equitable future for her community.

She was inspired to fight for change after meeting an organizer from Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) while living at a shelter with her four children in 2016. ‘I was intrigued to learn that elected officials are supposed to work for the people,’ Maxica said. ‘And that they could be held accountable.’

Six months later and cancer-free, Maxica called up CCH and immediately got to work. She marched with the Fight for $15 campaign. She served on focus groups. She registered to vote. And after years of struggle and advocacy, she secured permanent housing for her family in 2017.

In 2018, Maxica spoke with legislators and the press about the difficulties of being homeless, jobless and seriously ill, with only a modest TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) grant for support. By sharing her story, Maxica helped sway legislators to increase TANF grant levels across Illinois for the first time in a decade, providing critical support to the state’s poorest families.

Today, Maxica continues to fight for her community and a better world for her children. She serves as a core group leader on CCH’s Bring Chicago Home campaign and is a member of CCH’s Speakers Bureau. She recently joined CCH’s board of directors, inspired to add her voice and perspective through a new lens.

‘There is power in numbers,’ Maxica says. ‘Together, ending homelessness is within our grasp.’”

Honored by: Erin Sindewald of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Chicago Tribune: City-funded Chicago homeless shelters violate rights of people with disabilities, lawsuit claims

By Anna Kim

Chicago’s homeless shelter system discriminates against people with disabilities and fails to provide accommodations mandated by federal law, a Chicago woman claims in a federal lawsuit.

The suit, filed in federal court late Monday on behalf of the Chicago woman, accuses the city of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by not ensuring that the city’s homeless shelters and their services are accessible to people with disabilities.

Laura Martin, the plaintiff, was turned away from more than one shelter because she has difficulty walking, according to the lawsuit. After she requested help from the city’s shelter system, it took three nights to find her a place she could stay, according to the suit.

Martin, who has rheumatoid arthritis, cannot climb stairs or walk for more than one block at a time because of her disability, according to the lawsuit.

“Some of the most vulnerable people in our city are completely being denied access,” said Diane O’Connell, a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless attorney. “I mean, (the plaintiff) had to sleep in a hospital emergency room for multiple nights because there was no help for her.”

Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP, a large law firm with offices in several states, partnered with Martin in the lawsuit.

For the rest of the story, use this link.

Associated Press (San Francisco Chronicle) – Lawsuit: Chicago homeless shelters lack accessibility

Chicago Tribune, Letter to the Editor: Homelessness in Chicago needs a long-term fix

Chicago stepped up when the polar vortex hit. The city’s various departments, as well as Chicago’s businesses and concerned citizens, responded to the emergency with money, time and urgency. People experiencing homelessness could be safe in warming centers, buses, shelters and motel rooms generously rented for them by others (“‘Regular people’ move dozens from camp to inn,” Feb. 1).

The weather is returning to normal winter conditions. The added shelter beds and the warming buses and centers have gone away, and the funding for motel rooms is running out. The people who found temporary refuge will be back on the streets. Their homelessness does not end just because the weather emergency does.

Now is the time to focus on long-term, permanent solutions to homelessness. The Bring Chicago Home resolution sits in the City Council Finance Committee, waiting to be heard. This resolution would move forward a proposal to raise the city’s real estate transfer tax on properties worth more than $1 million and would generate millions in new revenue, all dedicated to permanent housing and services for those experiencing homelessness.

With thousands of people in our city experiencing homelessness, the Bring Chicago Home campaign can have meaningful impact on this enormous problem.

Whether it is 25 below zero or a beautiful spring day, no one should be homeless. Let’s move the incredible energy and compassion we saw this past week to bigger solutions.

— Doug Schenkelberg, Executive Director, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Link to the Chicago Tribune Letters to the Editor

Newsweek – Polar vortex: Chicago’s homeless struggle in the bitter cold

By Katherine Hignett

Temperatures in Chicago are set to plummet as low as minus 12 degrees on Wednesday as the polar vortex tightens its grip on the Windy City. Homeless charities and city officials are racing to shelter as much of Chicago’s homeless population as possible before the extreme cold sets in.

“The homeless face serious challenges all year long when outside,” Paul Hamann, president of local organization the Night Ministry, told Newsweek. “During cold weather snaps, such as we are having now, our biggest concerns are hypothermia, frostbite and respiratory illnesses.”

Access Newsweek here

Experiencing sub-20 Fahrenheit temperatures for just a few minutes can harm your health, Hamann explained. The extreme cold, he added, is especially dangerous for people whose health is already compromised.

Advocacy group Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) estimates some 16,000 people live on the city’s streets and in its homeless shelters. That number jumps to nearly 80,000 when people who are couch surfing or seeking shelter with friends or family are taken into account.

Official figures counted just 5,657 sheltered or unsheltered homeless people in the city in one day in 2017, but the CCH’s executive director, Doug Schenkelberg, said the numbers do not capture the full picture.

The city has turned public buildings and even buses into warming centers to help people stay safe during the day. But many people facing homelessness have nowhere to go when they close, Hamann explained. “There are never enough shelter beds,” he said.

Some warming centers do stay open all night, however, and those seeking shelter—and people who spot others in need—can call 3-1-1 to find the nearest one. CCH is also collecting transit passes for those whose local shelter is full. “Whether it’s a shelter, a 24-hour warming center or a family or friend’s couch, find a place to be safe,” he said.

Some people prefer to stay on the streets at night because they’ve had bad experiences at shelters or because single-sex facilities can’t accommodate their partner, for example. “These are hard situations to face,” Hamann noted.

Hamann said locals could support those in need by contacting groups like the Night Ministry and finding out which items are needed, such as blankets, sleeping bags or socks. Financial donations, he added, were always appreciated.

Although Schenkelberg praised the city’s response to the current cold weather, he urged officials to improve support for homeless people year-round.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office estimates at least 18 people have died from exposure to the cold so far this winter, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Since 2006, some 250 people are thought to have died at least in part because of the cold. It is not known how many of these people were experiencing homelessness.

The CCH, Schenkelberg told Newsweek, wants elected officials to implement a funding initiative called “Bring Chicago Home” that would dedicate $150 million to tackling homelessness in the city.

“Homelessness exists 365 days a year,” he added. “It’s important to rise to the occasion in these emergencies, but it’s equally important to work towards ending homelessness when the emergency passes.”

Chicago Tribune – ‘It’s not always better than living on the street’: Couch surfing young adults part of a Chicago homeless population with unique struggles

By Christen A. Johnson

Johnny Rivers was doing everything right.

For the first 18 years of his life, the Englewood native managed to overcome the disenfranchisement plaguing his neighborhood: He graduated from Jones College Prep, becoming the first in his family to finish high school; started college at a historically black university in Memphis; and found a passion producing music. “I was on a high horse,” he proudly recalled.

No one could have predicted he’d be homeless by age 19…

Link to the complete feature story.

…Niya Kelly, state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), says doubled-up living for young people tends to look like Rivers’ experience: “couch surfing,” “moving from place to place” — particularly at night — and not being guaranteed the same place to stay.

In 2016, there were more than 11,000 unaccompanied homeless youths ages 14 to 24 in Chicago, and 85 percent of them were living doubled-up, according to the most recent data from a CCH estimate…

…The fear of the unknown, of not knowing where they can go next, is a common feeling for homeless youths who are bouncing around or living doubled-up. Kelly says they often try to make themselves “as small as possible, or not eat as much food, or be as hospitable as possible to keep the peace” to be able to stay somewhere.

There’s a misconception, too, Kelly said, that having a roof over your head — however momentary it may be — is better than living on the street.

“You don’t know what a person has to do in order stay in a house that night,” she said, “so it’s not always better than living on the street. Some youths have to turn over their disability check or SNAP benefits (to the homeowner). Some girls get trafficked. Just because you’re going somewhere at night doesn’t mean you’re safe.”…

ABC-7 Eyewitness News: Lawsuit alleges city of Chicago discriminated against tent city homeless

By Evelyn Holmes

The homeless residents of the Wilson and Lawrence viaducts are vowing not to quit after a Cook County judge delayed ruling on whether to dismiss their discrimination lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

The former encampments under Lake Shore Drive in Uptown were widely known as tent city. In this most recent lawsuit, filed in August of last year, the plaintiffs and their attorneys accuse the city of illegally targeting the homeless by concocting a plan to install bike lanes on the sidewalk, resulting in not enough space for them to reside in their makeshift tents.

VIEW the ABC-7 report 

“Regardless of today’s outcome, we are going to continue to fight the city when they choose to operate outside the law,” said Carol Ladape, lawsuit plaintiff and former tent city resident.

The dispute has been going on for years… Lawyers for the homeless contend the city’s own guidelines say placing the bike lanes in the street would be safer for everyone. They say the construction is a deliberate attempt to remove homeless people and is a violation of the Illinois Homeless Bill of Rights.

“We have also adequately plead discriminatory intent, after we get the ruling to decide how to proceed,” said Diane O’Connell, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless…