Ceolo Lewis & her family

“August 13, 2009,” says Ceolo Lewis.

Asked when she became homeless, Ceolo remembers the very day she and her daughters moved into an emergency shelter on Chicago’s South Side. It would be 19 months before her family found a new home.

Being evicted from a house shared with a relative – and out of work, out of money and in the process of divorcing – Ceolo had no options. Her family moved into a shelter in Auburn Gresham. Within days, a box of the girls’ clothes and toys was stolen from their unlocked room.  

“At 2 years old, Shani was telling me, ‘Mom, I don’t like this place, I want to leave this place.’ Her hair was falling out – she was pulling it out,” Ceolo says.

One Tuesday evening a week or so later, Wayne Richard, a community organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, arrived to do outreach. A poet, he runs creative writing outreach at several family shelters. Mothers and some of the older children participate in the Horizons program.

“Mr. Wayne showed up and I was drawn to it. I was already writing poetry,” Ceolo says. “He’d come back and forth every other week. It helped me to voice what I felt.”

That fall, Wayne talked to families about joining an advocacy trip to Springfield, to talk to legislators about why they should not slash programs that assist homeless families and youth.

“We rode down on the bus, we had on our yellow shirts,” says Ceolo. “I was awestruck because I saw a lot of people. I didn’t realize how big this whole thing was until I stepped off the bus. It hit me really hard.

“If I didn’t go on that trip to Springfield and see how the world was, I’d probably still feel downtrodden. It truly opened my eyes to a lot. There are a lot of people fighting for the same cause. I liked it. I still like it.”

Ceolo, 36, says she realized “I need to buck up.” She looked for new opportunities, and grew more active at CCH. She turned up for City Hall meetings as the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition pushed for an affordable housing ordinance. She’s made four trips to Springfield. She joined the CCH Speakers Bureau, and she performed her poems at two Horizons reading events.

Life for her girls also improved. They remain at St. Ethelreda, a Catholic school that allows low-income children to attend tuition-free. The girls’ grades are good and they have friends. Ceolo is in job training, working at a childcare center.

Last March, a rapid re-housing program placed the family in a subsidized apartment. Ceolo pays 30% of income for rent. Program funding could end in mid-2012, before her 18-month lease expires. That worries Ceolo, but she is trying to land a job long before that through her training program.

Older daughter Dyani listens as her mother talks about their experiences. But the girl would rather chat about plans for her 10th birthday and her first-ever sleepover party. It reminds Ceolo of the excitement of their first nights in their new home.

“A friend brought over some cushions, and that’s what we slept on for three months. I wanted to cry I was so happy, but I needed to be strong. We were finally out of the shelter.”

– Photos by Betsy Neely Photography

–  Story by Anne Bowhay, Media Coordinator

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless helps people find their voice

  •  CCH community organizers run outreach at 28 Chicago shelters and housing programs serving families and adults, reaching 3,500 people a year.
  •  Senior Organizer Wayne Richard started the Horizons writing outreach project in 2007, basing it on an earlier CCH program that helped him find his poet’s voice almost 10 years earlier, when he lived in a West Side shelter. Horizons reaches 75 women and children a year.
  •  From outreach, organizers mobilize parents, youths and adults to advocate on issues that affect homeless people. This year that includes pressing state legislators to restore funds cut from homeless prevention grants. This state program, created and funded because of CCH advocacy, has helped more than 95,000 households in 10 years.
  •  Homeless leaders worked on Sweet Home Chicago campaign, helping pass an amendment to a city ordinance that will make funds available to redevelop vacant rental housing. Projects eligible under the new TIF Vacant Building Ordinance must earmark at least 30% of units for households earning no more than half of area median income ($37,700 for a family of four).