Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, Sanctuary: Interview with Doug Schenkelberg

In the August edition of Sanctuary, Nisan Chavkin, Executive Director of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, talks with the Executive Director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Doug Schenkelberg, about the people who experience homelessness and how we can address this dire situation in our community. Also featured is the annual Interfaith Memorial Observance for Indigent Persons.

Crain’s Chicago Business, Doug Schenkelberg: Chicago, let’s be a leader on solving homelessness

By Doug Schenkelberg, CCH Executive Director

On any given day, you can walk through the Loop or under viaducts throughout our city and see people struggling with homelessness. However upsetting it is to witness their suffering, it is more heartbreaking to know that these people reflect the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chicago’s homelessness problem.

More than 86,000 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2017, according to the most recent census data. And nearly 80 percent are hidden from public view because their homelessness is experienced by staying doubled-up (if not tripled or quadrupled) with friends, family or strangers.

Too little affordable housing, insufficient living-wage work, physical and mental health ailments, and struggles with substance use are some of the reasons people face housing instability. Few realize that 1 in 5 Chicago adults who are homeless are employed. And 1 in 4 have some level of college education. More than 20,000 Chicago children strive to stay in school while couch-hopping night to night.

Moreover, homelessness has a disparate impact on people of color, with 4 out of 5 people experiencing homelessness being black or brown.

The reasons people become homeless are complex, but the solution is straightforward — permanent housing with supportive services. It is a proven model that brings people out of homelessness and keeps them out.

Crain’s – Mark Grapengater/Flickr

But inadequate resources and a historic lack of political will to secure sufficient resources keep us from moving forward. Chicago ranks near the bottom in both total and per capita spending on homelessness when compared to our peer cities. Moreover, the federal funding that Chicago receives to stem homelessness cannot be used to help the largest share of people who are homeless in our city—those who live doubled-up.

What Chicago needs is dedicated funding at a scale that can have a measurable impact on reducing homelessness. Fortunately, there is an ordinance pending in the City Council that would do just that. Backed by the Bring Chicago Home coalition of over 80 community advocates and civic groups, this measure would dramatically increase funding to combat homelessness through an increase in the city’s one-time real estate transfer tax applied exclusively to properties sold for more than $1 million.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot should fully embrace this progressive revenue increase, both because she included this proposal in her platform as a candidate and because a poll conducted for my organization showed that two-thirds of likely Chicago voters say they would support a referendum authorizing it.

Too often the refrain is, “We know homelessness is a problem, but we will get to it after dealing with these other issues.” Continually deferring solutions to homelessness only lets the problem fester. Mayor Lightfoot can take a different path. Make Chicago the shining example of how a major city tackles homelessness. The time is now.

Also in the Crain’s series on Homelessness

Christine Achre, Primo Center for Women and Children: Homeless children should remain front-and-center in fight to end homelessness

Janet L. Smith, Vorhees Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago: When it comes to homelessness, prevention is the best policy

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.

The New York Times: ‘I Just Had to Do My Emotional Homework’: How a 30-Year-Old Wrote a Family Saga

Claire Lombardo, whose debut novel “The Most Fun We Ever Had” follows a family shaken by secrets, talks about shifting from social work to fiction and how she wrote about what she doesn’t know.

By Joumana Khatib

It’s not every day you find a novel in which the grandparents can’t keep their hands off each other.

Claire Lombardo’s book debut, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” out on Tuesday from Doubleday, is narrated by seven members of the Sorenson family. It is anchored by the four-decade marriage between David and Marilyn, “two people who emanated more love than it seemed like the universe would sanction.”

The story shifts backward and forward in time, following along as the couple raises four daughters, Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace, in the Chicago suburbs. The return of Jonah, whom Violet put up for adoption after an unplanned pregnancy, unsettles the family, casting new light on decades of secrets and betrayals.

Lombardo, 30, spent about six years working for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, then spent a year in a social-work master’s program before dropping out to focus on writing. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017 and still lives in Iowa City, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. We spoke by phone, and our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Tell me about the genesis of the book.

It began as a short story, something to keep me occupied when I was in social-work school. It originally started with Violet at the center — I wanted to explore a character with a perfect life that was upended by the arrival of someone she thought she’d never see again. But as I kept going, I was more interested by the satellite characters, especially her parents.

Did you draw on your own family life for inspiration?

I’m the youngest of five, and there’s a big gap in age between me and my siblings. They practically had a different set of parents than I did. I had the role of the little Switzerland. I’ve always been an observer, since I was a kid, and I do walk through the world in that way.

[ Read our review of “The Most Fun We Ever Had. ]

I’m always curious about people who come to writing after another career. How did you make that shift?

I took a break from my undergraduate degree and worked for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, first as an intern, then as a paralegal and the group’s intake person. I spent about six years there, working primarily with homeless parents and kids in the public-school system. That work made me more open-minded and a lot more aware of how nuanced and weird the world is.

You have to approach people from a place of zero judgment and complete empathy. It taught me how to interact with any number of people: Here I was, this young kid in her 20s from the Chicago suburbs, and all of a sudden I’m thrown into trying to help a mother of three with three jobs who didn’t know where her kids would sleep that night.

The transformative part about working with families at the coalition was that I had to separate my observation and writing brains, though I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a writer at that time.

It was a truly immersive experience. I loved it. It gave me a sense of purpose. It’s the same sense of purpose I feel as a writer.

How did social-work school figure into your development as a writer?

“A lot of young people feel like they don’t have stories to tell, or they’re not allowed to tell stories beyond their own experience,” said Lombardo, who teaches creative writing in Iowa. “I try to dispel that as much as I can.” Credit: Mary Mathis for The New York Times

As I was finishing my undergraduate degree at University of Illinois at Chicago, I was pretty set on applying for my masters in social work. I did have a creative writing professor pull me aside and tell me not to go, encouraging me to pursue writing instead. At the time I thought the idea of becoming a writer sounded ludicrous — actually, it still sounds ludicrous!

Once I got to social-work school, though, I was miserable. I lost my father very unexpectedly a few months in, and that really shifted my perspective and priorities. I became much more preoccupied with answering, “What am I doing and why?”

I have no memory of that year, to some degree. I got all As, I did my coursework, but working on the story in the evenings was therapeutic for me. Things were pretty dark, and it was an outlet for me, to immerse myself in a family that wasn’t my own.

How did your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop help?

I was lucky to find a community of supportive peers whose opinions I trusted. I arrived at Iowa with a very messy, 813-page draft, and my mentor, Ethan Canin, really helped with the structure of the book.

Having outside readers can show you how empathetically you’re rendering your characters. You have to have love for your characters and give them their due. And it was important for me to have readers who were parents, since I don’t have kids. I had to remind myself I’m allowed to write about things I don’t know, like a 40-year marriage. I just had to do my emotional homework.

Maybe most important was the fact that someone was paying me to write for the first time in my life. I had never just written or even been a full-time student. It was remarkable to have that freedom and to be told, “We trust you, go write a book.”

Now, as a creative writing teacher, what do you teach your students?

I work with both high-school students and undergraduates, and I love teaching, which I’m sort of surprised by! A lot of young people feel like they don’t have stories to tell, or they’re not allowed to tell stories beyond their own experience, and I try to dispel that as much as I can. As long as you know why you’re doing it and are writing with as much empathy as you can give, then I try to get them to write outside their comfort zone and explore points of view that are far from their own. Many of my students are studying engineering or business, and that exercise can be very freeing.

A lot of the work I do now is similar to what I was doing when I was at the Coalition for the Homeless: I helped them work through their own narratives and reframe their stories with power and purpose. I thought deeply about the ethics of storytelling — what’s mine to tell and what’s not. Perhaps I approached writing my own book with that sensibility.


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.


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