National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week: A legal aid career inspired by the civil rights movement

The latest of our daily essays by those who work at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

By Rene Heybach, Senior Counsel of the Law Project

IDHS Secretary Michelle Saddler, Kaleyah Wesley, Tia Carter, and CCH's Rene Heybach
(From left) Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler; CCH student leaders Kaleyah Wesley and Tia Carter; and CCH’s Rene Heybach at a Nov. 19 legislative reception in Springfield. (Photo by Ginny Lee)

Why work to end homelessness? For me I took seriously the Catholic teaching of my youth: to care for others, most especially the poor.

That imperative was fleshed out by the civil rights movement, which exposed the causes of poverty and urged a shift from a charity model to a model of equality of treatment. People in extreme poverty all around us lacking housing, being hungry are our brothers and sisters who suffer; whose children suffer from structural inequality. 

It’s not fair. It’s not racially just. Those words for me have always had power. Working intimately with people in trouble – which is what lawyers like me do — forces a person to get serious about these ideals.

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lets me be the kind of lawyer I need to be. Its multi-skilled staff is dedicated, collaborative, creative, smart, tactical and sees those experiencing homelessness as partners, agents of change, deserving of our best efforts.

Juancho Donahue, the man who drew me here, was a remarkable personal force and a living example that things always can be done even in desperate situations. On the eleventh anniversary of Juancho’s passing and in the spirit of El día de los muertos, I am not sad. I remember. CCH will now – as always – do what it takes!

Rene Heybach launched the Law Project at CCH in 1997, serving as its director until this year.