This profile is part of an Equal Voice News special edition naming 50 Cesar Chavez Day Community Heroes across the U.S. The online Equal Voice News is published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a key funder for CCH and other organizations that empower low-wage families.
Hero’s name: Ashley Allen
Home city: Chicago
Organization affiliation: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH)
Why this person is a Community Hero:
“Ashley Allen is a respected voice for people like herself, who grew up in a chronically homeless family. In more than five years on the CCH Speakers Bureau, Ashley has talked with and educated more than 3,000 students and community members in the Chicago area.
Most recently, Ashley was a panelist at DePaul University. She was joined by a homeless youth and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. They spoke to 68 students about the issues facing people who are homeless and at-risk – and they urged the senator to support budget items that help homeless students, families, emergency shelters and homeless prevention grants for families.
During her talks, Ashley tells of a father who had earned a master’s degree, but he when he lost his job, he turned to selling drugs to pay the bills. He got caught and was sent to prison. Ashley’s less-educated mother struggled to support three children on minimum wage retail jobs, despite working up to 60 hours a week. After getting behind on the rent, her evicted family moved into a Salvation Army shelter.
‘There were over 100 women and children sleeping in a huge room with bunk beds lined up in a row. The shelter was a lot like prison: We had to wake up at 5 every morning. Bright fluorescent lights would pop on and we all had to start our day, even if we had nowhere to go. We had to all eat at the same time, take a shower when they said take a shower and go to bed at 9 every night, whether you were sleepy or not. For the next 10 years, my family moved around to different shelters, lived doubled up with family, in hotels and in subsidized housing,’ she recalls.
Ashley emphasizes education as way out of poverty. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University and master’s degree in public administration from Illinois’ Governors State University. She is pursuing coursework toward a doctorate in education.
She also works on the Education Committee, a new CCH group that works with community organizers to advocate on issues that affect homeless families in Chicago Public Schools. Since 2009, she’s also volunteered on the selection committee for the CCH college scholarship program, which offers renewable $2,000 awards to 15 homeless students a year.
She tutors new winners on college aid and financing – an area of expertise in her job as high school program director for Horizons for Youth. In her paid employment, Ashley works with 35 high school and 20 college students and their volunteer mentors.
‘Ashley has an amazing ability to relate to such a range of people, from donors in the North Shore to inner city youth to fellow members of the Speakers Bureau,’ said Hannah Willage, CCH associate organizing director.
‘Her dedication to social justice is an inspiration. She always finds the time and energy to encourage others to join with us in our fight to prevent and end homelessness.’”
Honored by: Anne Bowhay of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
On #DefinePoverty: Poverty is typically defined by what you don’t have. What is Ashley’s definition?
“Poverty is not having your basic needs met. More so, it is about resource inequality. What are the resources available and how are they distributed among people? Do you have equal access to jobs, good schools, housing?”
How does Ashley work for community justice?
“I like meeting all the different people through the Speakers Bureau. We get to speak to people of all ages, all religions, all economic levels. A lot of people don’t know realize at the time, but we’re helping change the face of homelessness. Learn how to advocate, agitate. It is very empowering considering most of us have been through some very difficult times.”