Chicago Muckrackers: As CHA apartments sit empty, people on the waiting list are left homeless

By YanaKunichoff

On July 15, 2011, Brenda and Jimmy Miller were evicted from their home after both lost their jobs. They live in separate shelters, but see each other several times a week, including time spent watching the dogs at a Chicago dog park.

Behind every number on the Chicago Housing Authority waiting list,  is a mom, a husband or someone’s child.

Denaice Wright is No. 26,000.

She stays with a friend in a single-room occupancy hotel, which is the latest in a string of places that she’s lived. Wright first got on the waiting list four years ago through a lottery, and since then has bounced between temporary shelters, sharing homes with friends and sleeping in the park.

“I guess technically you could say I’m homeless,” said Wright. She is one of about 40,000 families in Chicago who are on the waiting list for an apartment.

A recent investigation in The Chicago Reporter  found that one in five of CHA’s 21,204 housing units are unoccupied. For low-income families and individuals on the list, that strikes a particularly harsh blow.

Wright said it’s “very upsetting” to know that there are 3,423 unoccupied CHA units. Especially as thousands wait and wait for a home.

“It is terrible, absolutely inhumane,” Debra Miller said of the CHA vacancies. “There are people waiting for CHA housing for years.”

Miller is one of those waiting. She’s also an activist with the Chicago Housing Initiative and lives at the Lawson House YMCA.

Wright and Miller spoke to The Chicago Reporter about their lives since they first got on the CHA’s list.

Husband and Wife

Miller and her husband, Jimmy Miller, became homeless on July 15th, 2011. It all started when they both lost their jobs.

Miller, 60, first lost her job as the manager of a travel agency in 2007. She worked several temporary jobs, fell ill and went on unemployment. Then in July 2011, with her unemployment exhausted and carpal tunnel keeping her from getting a job, she and her husband were evicted.

As soon as they were in a shelter, Miller said she placed them on the CHA waiting list. That was last August.

Miller and her husband have been married for 12 years but since they were evicted, they have been living separately because neither of their shelters allows visitors.

“Now we see each other several times a week and we talk to each other on the phone,” said Miller. “Where I live there is a lounge that we can go in when it’s too hot or too cold. I can’t visit him because they don’t allow visitors, and he can’t visit me because they don’t allow visitors.”

Living like this has been hard.

“I’m 60 and I shouldn’t be having to look for a place to live. I’ve worked all my life, I raised two children as a single mother, one of whom has a masters [degree],” she said. “I worked in an industry that didn’t give pensions. I tried to save, but it was hard as a single parent.”

The whole experience has been “very frustrating and demoralizing. CHA doesn’t treat you as a human being. You’re just a number,” Miller said.

Wright on the Move

When Wright was put the list in 2008, she was working as nurse practitioner and making $1,200 month. At that time, it was still difficult for her to make monthly rent payments.

She got on the CHA list for a Section 8 voucher, which officials told her would take three to five years. She was also on the waiting list for housing in the West Ridge Apartment Community, which offers affordable housing.

While she has been waiting for one of her options to come through, her housing situation has frequently changed.

She had been renting a hotel room that cost $680 a month. When she lost her nurse practitioner job in April, she moved out. She then tried the shelters, but had experiences there she’d rather forget.

In some shelters, she had to undress and bathe with little or no privacy. Others made her listen to religious services. She left those and headed to a park.

“I slept in the park, that’s where I met a lot of married couples that have kids and work,” Wright said.

With children living under these circumstances, Wright said the excuse of “disrepair” given by CHA for keeping some houses empty is not enough.

“A woman with kids wouldn’t mind if there was a leaky faucet or chipped paint on the wall,” Wright said.

A Hopeless Wait

Neither Wright nor Miller have much hope of ever hearing from CHA on getting an apartment.

“I check faithfully every two months to check where I’m at,” said Wright, who asks CHA workers how close she is to receiving the voucher. “They claim they don’t have that information.”

Miller said she has a similar experience: “They won’t tell you.”

People could live in those houses, said Miller. “When I go to Lathrop and see homes boarded up, with air conditioners in the window, I start to cry.”