Congressional Record: A statement on the life of CCH founder, Les Brown

Congressional Record: 109th Congress (2005-06)
WILLIAM “LES” BROWN: A LEGACY OF INSPIRATION AND ACTIVISM — (Extensions of Remarks – May 11, 2005)

Ms. Schakowsky: Mr. Speaker, later this month, people in Chicago will gather to celebrate the life and achievements of William “Les” Brown. Les Brown had an enormous influence on the way our nation thinks about homelessness. He was a person of intelligence, creativity, passion and caring, who showed that we can each make a difference in helping to create communities that provide support and opportunities for every individual. I am fortunate to have known and been inspired by Les and I, like many Chicagoans, will miss him.   

Les Brown was best known as the founder of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, formed in 1980 with the help of the Travelers and Immigrants Aid Society, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and other service providers. Karen Singer, executive director of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, called him the “moral compass” of the movement to end homelessness. Ed Shurna, the current executive of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, acknowledges him as “the chief strategist and idea man behind most of the Coalition’s successes” in providing housing, jobs programs and health care for the homeless.

A social worker, former Air Force medical corpsman and a blues pianist, Les Brown used all of his skills to push for solutions. While others ignored the problem, he taught us that homelessness can be solved and that individuals living on the street deserve to be treated with dignity. In 1983, he organized the first national conference on homelessness in Chicago. In 1984, he underwent a heart transplant but never let that slow him down or limit his dedicated activism. For his entire life, he fought to keep this issue at the top of the political agenda, reminding us that the homeless are not nameless beings or numbers, but infants and children, working mothers and fathers, returning veterans and those living with illnesses who deserve our support and a safe, decent place to live.

Les Brown grew up in rural Georgia, where he learned his values from his parents, who taught him the values of fairness and social justice. It was the love of the land that he developed in childhood that gave him the inspiration for “Growing Home,” an initiative that helps the homeless learn job skills at an organic farm in Marseilles, Illinois. According to Les, “Homeless people often are without roots. They’re not tied down, connected, not part of their family anymore. Our organic farming program is a way for them to connect with nature–to plant and nurture roots over a period of time.

When you get involved in taking responsibility for caring for something, creating an environment that produces growth, then it helps you to build self-esteem and feel more connected.”

There are concrete reminders of Les Brown’s accomplishments throughout the Chicagoland area–low-income housing units that would not have been built without him, organizations and coalitions that would not exist but for his leadership, initiatives like Growing Home that grew from his vision. Some of the best evidence of his legacy can be found in the people he touched and motivated and who will carry on his work.

Les Brown had an enormous impact and influence on the people he met, creating a generation of advocates who will follow in his path. One of them, Fred Friedman, wrote the following in commemoration:


Les Brown died the other day. I did not know him very well or very long but he was very dear to me.

I first met Les when I was still living in a homeless shelter. As you might guess, it was at a meeting about homeless youth. Later, he was kind enough to see me in the office of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. I was trying to decide what, if anything, to do with my life. At that meeting, I told him that people, including myself, sometimes had trouble seeing me as anything other than a mentally ill homeless person. He said that he understood, and that some people had trouble seeing him as anything other than a person with a bad heart. I am sure that was a lie, Who could think Les had a bad heart? However, it was incredibly kind.

I got to know him a little better at many endless Continuum (of Care) meetings. Eventually, he nominated me for the Governing Board of the Continuum. Still later, he, along with Paul Selden and I, founded Next Steps, NFP. Still later, I got to hear him play a mean Jazz piano.

I do not know his family, or if he left any property to them, but I do know that he left me a great legacy. Les saw people without homes and tried to find them homes. He saw hungry people and tried to feed them. He saw people without power, and tried to empower them. He saw people without hope and tried to give them hope. He took his work, but not himself, seriously. He could disagree without being disagreeable. He understood that good people could disagree with him, and that he could be wrong. In short, Les left me a legacy of trying and working, even when trying and working seems silly. In other words, he left me legacy of hope. I promise to use that legacy to continue his fight, until no one goes to bed hungry, and everyone has a home and hope.