Rene Heybach: Celebrating 20 years of accomplishments, reflecting on the reality of today

By Rene Heybach

Laurene (Rene) Heybach, the Law Project’s founding director (left), accepts the John “Juancho” Donahue award at the Law Project’s 20th anniversary celebration in March, pictured here with Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes.

Today I conclude twenty years and six months working at the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The work was hard, but worth it. The people I worked with have been great, often courageous. There have been so many remarkable people we served, collaborated with, and joined in the streets. I am entirely grateful. 

Thank you to so many wonderful friends and supporters for this chance.

As I leave, I am most proud of our lengthly litigation, Salazar v. Edwards. In 1999, the Law Project went to court to require the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to comply with legal protections for homeless students, resulting in a significant order to address CPS’ widespread non-compliance. It required CPS to significantly improve services to homeless students and designate a trained liaison in every city school. Tens of thousands of students and their families have benefited directly from that work every school year since, and the settlement continues to protect the educational rights of more than 18,000 homeless CPS students today.

Another source of pride was the launch and delivery of the Youth Futures mobile legal clinic, which has provided civil legal services to thousands of unaccompanied homeless youth throughout Chicago since its inception in 2004. The direct legal services provided to our poorest youth have almost always improved lives, in some cases even saved them.

Educating volunteers on the rights of homeless children in public schools.

Most recently, through our longterm litigation and enforcement in Hill v. Erickson in 2009, the Law Project represented more than 1,000 pregnant and parenting DCFS wards, protecting their right to housing, school, childcare and medical services.

But in spite of our work, when arriving today – and as I leave tonight — I pass people begging; some curled into downtown doorways asleep; others ill or disabled; most sharing the common dilemma: a lack housing.

Doing outreach to homeless students and families in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

When I leave my office, the doubled-up and sheltered families will be struggling to make it; the homeless students and unaccompanied youth will still be seeking basic educational rights, decent places to live. Those exiting our jails and prisons will continue to face the barrier of prejudice. So I feel the joy of retirement and all of our accomplishments over the years, yet still witness inequity and poverty on a daily basis.

As a young woman, I listened and took to heart the words Dr. King famously spoke in his 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, in which he condemned the causes of poverty: the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”

His answer: challenge the status quo; work for justice in a hostile world; restructure a system that reduces so many of our brothers and sisters to poverty and homelessness. This is what we at CCH attempt to do. Though I leave today, I don’t give up. And tomorrow will be another day, when so many people of good conscience work towards the dream.