Enterprise Stories

Planning to do good? Get ready for haters.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.23 PM

This article originally appeared on Tonic.com on February 25th, 2011.

Imagine that after a life-long struggle with obesity, you decided to take measures to shed 100 pounds. But when you told your friends and family, they weren’t on board.

“We’d rather you kept the weight on,” they said. “Sure, you’re at a higher risk for diabetes and cancer, but aren’t you more comfortable that way?”

Crazy, right?

Now imagine that your weight loss wasn’t physical, but material. Imagine selling your house and moving into one half the size so you could give the money away. What would your family and friends say?

That’s what Kevin Salwen and his family found out when they did just that — sold their palatial Atlanta home for one half as large to give the money to help villagers in remote Ghana. But when they broke the news to the people they knew best, the reaction wasn’t what they expected.

“I think we felt that this is something that everybody should know about. We were very proud of it,” Salwen told Tonic. “We thought everybody would understand and embrace that. That was a poor judgment on our part.”

Salwen, who wrote a book about the experience with his teenager daughter, Hannah, called The Power of Half, says those initial conversations about his family’s monumental life change were often painful and awkward.

“Our friends couldn’t quite figure out just what the heck it was about,” said Salwen.
“How did we go from people they thought they knew to people who would make this kind of decision?”

If you start living on less, giving away more of your income to charity, or making any sort of switch away from the typical American consumer lifestyle, you’re going to face confused and even skeptical reactions, said Salwen.

“A lot of people were uncomfortable because it was challenging them. It made them question their own process and their own way of life,” he explained.

Salwen remembers one day when his wife, Joan, came home from lunch with a friend. When Joan described her family’s new adventure, the friend burst into tears and said, “This is not my reality.”

“Joan was so upset. She told us, ‘I’m sick and tired of being a weirdo. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want to shut up,’” said Salwen.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.12 PMBut although his family has lost some friends, they’ve also gained some new ones.

Despite the criticism they encountered, they’ve never regretted making the choice to downsize.

“Our small act of philanthropy has brought us into contact with so many of the most loving and kind people,” said Salwen. “For everybody who says, ‘This is not a relationship I want to have anymore,’ we’ve had 50 people who’ve come into our lives who put our own generosity to shame.”

So if you’re thinking of “getting off the hedonistic treadmill,” as Salwen says, what should you expect? And how can you learn from his family’s experience to make the transition easier? Here are a few tips:

— ”Recognize that you are going to be running headlong into what people have been lead to believe all their lives.”
The idea that “bigger is better” and “the new beats the old” are part of American culture. ”That concept is so deeply ingrained in who we are and what we do that almost no matter what you say, it’s going to come across as difficult for some people,” says Salwen.

— Make it about you.
Instead of talking about how you want to change the world, talk about your personal motivations for making a change. ”Let them know, I’m doing this because I think I can be happier,” Salwen suggests. “I’m doing this because I feel like I’ve gotten away from my core values.”

— Practice your message.
Figure out what you want people to know and how best to say it beforehand, so you don’t get swept up in excitement. Also, decide how much you want your choices to be a challenge to others. ”Some would say that we were overly challenging,” said Salwen. “But we really do believe that people can be better, healthier and happier. Happier in a deeper, more authentic sense.”

— Embrace change and focus on the bigger picture.

“I don’t have the same friends as I had from high school or college or when our kids were young,” said Salwen. “You go through groups of friends. If there are people who liked us better before than they do now, that’s okay. I can deal with that.”

Salwen says he doesn’t regret for a moment that he listened to his teenage daughter’s prompting to consume less and give more. ”We’re so much happier.We’re so much closer. We’re surrounded by generous, wonderful people. Our life is less about having and more about meaning.”

Enterprise Stories

The geeks shall inherit the earth

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.44 PMThis story originally appeared on Tonic.com on Dec. 24, 2010.

It’s not uncommon for friends to call up Janet Mitts with computer problems. Last week, she even fixed her hairstylist’s laptop. She regularly brings people down to the basement computer workshop where she volunteers to give their machines a diagnosis and a cure.

But Mitts isn’t your typical computer whiz. She’s a 66-year-old retired African-American woman who lives on the south side of Chicago. She learned to fix computers and even built her own with the help of a scrappy nonprofit called FreeGeek Chicago.

“I always loved taking things apart, and I got fascinated by computers,” she says. “I love learning how the parts work, what makes them tick, what goes where.”

Mitts is not the only one. FreeGeek Chicago has taught hundreds of people how to take computers apart and put them back together, allowing them to volunteer weekly to eventually earn their own refurbished computer. FreeGeek has two objectives: to cut down on the amount of computer waste thrown into landfills and to give people low-cost access to technology.

Founder David Eads says he’s amazed at how FreeGeek has grown, without any support from grants or foundations, to create a vibrant community.

Six years ago, Eads and a few young, idealistic friends were passionate about narrowing the digital divide and frustrated with the computer-lab model often employed in poor communities.

“You learn computers by having them in your home,” says Eads. “You learn computers by learning to break them and then fix them.”

Soon after, Eads and his friends learned about a new nonprofit in Oregon, FreeGeek Portland, that was providing free computer parts and training to residents there.

Soon after, FreeGeek Chicago was born.

Although it started off slow, FreeGeek Chicago has taken off. In the first three years it was open, about 100 volunteers completed their build-a-computer program. In 2010, Eads estimates that up to 750 people will have gone through it.

Part of that rise in volunteers is their open door policy. Eads says FreeGeek doesn’t put limits on who can come through its doors — there are no income restrictions or background checks.

“I always say, ‘We don’t care if you just got out of the joint or you just got out or church, as long as you are willing to treat people with respect,’” he says.

Although they use funds from computer sales and scrap metals to keep it running, Eads says FreeGeek can always use a little more of two things: money and computer donations. In particular, he says, they need donations of old laptops.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.34 PM“People want to buy laptops and volunteers want to work on laptops, so they’re a win-win for us,” says Eads.
FreeGeek Chicago runs almost entirely on volunteers, with only one paid staff person, Aaron Howze, running the day-to-day operations. Howze is a former electrical engineer who came to FreeGeek to help out and got hooked.

“I found that I could learn what I didn’t know and I could teach what I did,” he said. “I found that extremely satisfying.”

Twenty-year-old Sarah Fletcher recently came to FreeGeek to build her own computer. She’s studying business at Kennedy King College on Chicago’s south side and needs a computer for her school work. Even though it was her first day in the workshop, she said she planned on coming back — a lot.

“I don’t just want to get my computer,” says Fletcher. “I want to become a staff member. I want to be one of the people who knows everything.”

So, does Janet Mitts, admitted computer devotee, now think of herself as a geek?

“No,” she says. “But if I was, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.”

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “Even McDonald’s Won’t Hire Me”

Last but not least is Louis99ers-hdre’s story, the first 99er I interviewed. When I look back now, I think of Louise’s struggle as a mom and how terrified I would be not to be able to take care of my child. I hope I’m never there, but if there’s one thing I have learned about interviewing people who have hit rock bottom is that it can happen to anyone. I’m most anxious to catch up with Louise and hear how she is doing. Check back for updates on the 99ers, and read the rest of my series on people who maxed out their unemployment after the Great Recession with Yvonne, Ricky, Susan and Doug.

007-250x187-1When I first heard that unemployment benefits can last up to 99 weeks, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical.

I thought, that’s almost two years of checks. Someone can’t find a job after looking for two years?

Then I heard Louise’s story.

Louise Davies of Boston, Massachusetts had worked in retail for 18 years when she was laid off from Macy’s in 2008. Desperately looking for a job, she just exhausted her 99th week of unemployment.

When a person’s laid off, she normally gets about 26 weeks of unemployment from her state. But in this Great Recession, Congress has authorized additional federal tiers, which add up to 99 total weeks of unemployment benefits. Once a person gets to the fourth tier and is done with her 99 weeks, her benefits are done, no matter her job situation.

That’s where Louise is today. Ninety-nine weeks and no job in sight. She’s not alone — though there aren’t hard numbers yet, an estimated one million people could become “99ers” by the end of 2010. There are between five and six job seekers for every opening, and it is now taking people longer than ever before to find employment; the average unemployed person is out of work for a record 31.2 weeks. A quarter of the unemployed — equivalent to the population of Connecticut — have already been out of a job for more than a year.

At 40, Louise is a wife and a mom, and she’s been working since she could get her workers permit at 16.

“I used to ride my bike to my local McDonald’s for a 7 a.m. shift,” she said.  “Now even they won’t hire me because I’m over-experienced.”

Job hunting is what consumes her, every day.

“I look for jobs on every available board, paper or every person I have networked with several times a day,” Louise said. “This past week, I received my first response in two months: ‘I am sorry but we believe that we have found candidates that are better suited for this position than you.'”

Her benefits have been barely keeping the family afloat since she was laid off. Her husband works for FedEx and was working on his master’s degree before this happened. Their finances are a wreck.

“We’ve had to sell our car, burn through both of our 401(k)s and charge up all our credit cards just to stay afloat,” she says. “We’re a month behind on our rent. I jump every time the doorbell or telephone ring because I know that it is someone looking for money from us, and we don’t have any.”

She says she’s looked in every field — retail, office work, human resources, customer service and anything else she can apply for. She’s even applied to wait tables, but they objected that her last waitressing job was 20 years ago.

The family’s precarious financial situation hasn’t just taken a toll on their finances. It’s taken over Louise’s life.

“I bite my nails. My hair is starting to fall out,” she said. “I have very little dignity left.  I can barely look at my husband, I feel so ashamed.”

Food stamps help, she says. She’s applied for Section 8 housing, started taking the bus, and, when she’s not looking for a job, spends time playing outside with her daughter.

She says that she never thought something like this could happen to two people who have worked hard all their lives.

“I never dreamed of this world that I am living in,” she said. “I hate for my daughter to see me like this, and I hope that this will be a brief period in her life that she doesn’t remember as she grows older.”

Louise created the Facebook group, “Tier V to Survive,” to rally support around Congress extending unemployment by another tier. She says she calls her Senators and representatives and faxes them daily. She says there are millions like her who have been so hurt by this recession that they won’t be able to survive without further help.

“I feel that they are so very out of touch with us,” she said.  “If they had just one relative who was going through this they would understand that we are hanging on by a fingernail.”

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “I’m Scared”

99ers-hdrSusan Madrak’s 99 weeks are up.

“I’m done. My last check was three weeks ago,” she says about her unemployment benefits. She’s got two months worth of savings in the bank, but after that, she says she’s not sure what will happen.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I have a couple of job leads I’m pursuing, but who knows? I don’t really know what to do if none of this comes through.”

Susan, who’s 55 and lives in Philadelphia, has been pounding the pavement since 2008 when she was laid off from her sales job at a consulting business.

headshot“I’ve looked everywhere,” Susan said. “I have probably sent out 400 resumes in the last year and a half, two years. I’ve gotten one interview. One interview.

Although these last two years have been incredibly difficult, her saving grace has been her political blog — Suburban Guerilla — where she writes about the country, the economy and her own struggle to find work. Her readers have even pitched in when she’s been in dire straits, paying $700 a month COBRA health insurance coverage for the first 18 months of her unemployment and chipping in for car repairs.

Some conservatives cling tight to the ludicrous notion that people on unemployment are enjoying themselves and refusing to look for work. One U.S. representative recently lamented that extending unemployment benefits is “creating hobos.” Not so, says Susan.

She says it’s been nearly impossible to find a job, and anything out there offers so little security that it’s difficult to take a chance on it. If she takes a new job, but gets laid off before working there long enough to qualify for unemployment, it means she’s out of luck.

“You have to make an educated guess,” said Susan. “When you know the economy is falling down, you’re not really interested in playing dice.”

What angers her the most is the ambivalence of politicians in her own Democratic party.

“I am devastated by the fact that the party I have supported all my life is so utterly indifferent to the suffering of ordinary men and women,” said Susan. “For the first time in my life, I don’t even feel like voting.”

While Congress has passed extensions for the current tiers of unemployment, almost no one is talking about adding another tier for people like herself who have exhausted all benefits.

“They had plenty of money to prop up Wall Street. They don’t have enough money to help people who are struggling,” she says.

With no help on the horizon, Susan wonders what the next few months have in store.

“I’m sitting here wondering how I’m going to pay my bills if this money runs out,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

This post was part of my 2010 series on the 99ers  – people who were still looking for a job once their 99 weeks of unemployment were up. I’m going to be following up with these folks to find out where they are now, but you can read the previous stories here, here and here.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “The American Dream Is a Living Nightmare”

99ers-hdrHere’s another from my 2010 series “Meet the 99ers.” As you probably remember, after the Great Recession, Congress approved extra emergency unemployment benefits for people who were out of work, extending unemployment for 99 weeks. But there were still plenty of people looking for a job, even after that term ended, and I interviewed a handful of them. Today is Doug Deaton’s story. Doug hails from my home state of Michigan, which is no longer the state with the highest unemployment, but still is sixth from the top with a rate of 8.9 percent.

 

It should be no surprise that one of our 99ers hails from Michigan. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the mitten state has been hard-hit by the economic downturn, compounding years of loss in the automotive industry.

Doug Deaton knows exactly how hard it is to find a job in Michigan.

At 62, many people might happily take Social Security and retire, rather than continue looking for a job.

But not Doug. He wants to work. He needs to work.

Doug moved back to Michigan from Seattle several years ago after identity theft ruined his finances. He moved back in with his elderly mother in Battle Creek, where he had grown up.

“Instead of being able to help her, I needed her help. It should have been the other way around,” he says.  “I should have been able to do more for her.”

He got a job with a temp-to-hire firm and began working at a nearby university, with the promise of being hired full time. But when a new director chose to hire a personal friend instead, this former consultant/conference coordinator/sales manager was again out of work and out of money.

Since then, he’s looked for work daily and survived on unemployment benefits, which he’s now exhausted.

“I have emailed and mailed thousands [of resumes] in the last three years. About once every three or four months, I might get some type of response,” he says. “Most of the time, nothing.”

One of the problems, he says, is age discrimination. Although he has a lot of job experience, skills and is in good health, most companies are not interested in hiring an older person. When he applied at Starbucks, he says the manager didn’t want to hire him, even though he had experience as a barista.

“I already knew the job, but he literally told me I was too old and that I couldn’t keep up,” Doug said.

Doug says he ended up doing so well on the test that the manager had no choice but to hire him. Even that position disappeared, though, when he wasn’t given enough hours to stay on.

His mother recently passed away after a long illness, and since then, Doug has been struggling to get by.

“I am blessed to have a landlord who is a prince. I owe him an incredible amount of back rent,” he says. “He knows what I have been through, and he knows I have nowhere else to go if I were evicted.”

He says he’s resisted getting government help as long as possible, but he’s had to use food stamps and Medicare. He applied to get early Social Security, just to pay his rent.

But this isn’t the America he’s believed in — one where there’s an honest day’s work for anyone who’s willing.

“The majority of our elected officials have forgotten why they were sent to D.C. in the first place, and that is to do the will of the people, and take care of the American dream,” he says. “For me, it has become a living nightmare.”

Missed the other posts in this series? Read Yvonne’s story and Ricky’s too.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “We May Never Be Gainfully Employed Again”

99ers-hdrYesterday, I posted the first of a five-post series that I did back in 2010 on the “99ers” – people who maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment after the Great Recession. Despite the fact that these stories are three years old, I was surprised by how relevant they are today and how little has changed for workers in our economy. Los Angeles’ unemployment rate is still a dismal 11.3 percent.

n578893139_71574_4839Here’s Yvonne’s story:

Just a few months back, Yvonne Shine was nearly evicted from her “rinky-dink” apartment in downtown Los Angeles because she couldn’t pay her rent.

“I think I’m going to be back in the same position again by the first of next month,” she said. “I don’t have any money coming in.”

The fact that she’s been unemployed for over two years is still shocking to Yvonne. She started working at 15 years old and has decades of experience in administration, including work at a movie studio, a major university, a biomedical engineering company and more. But since she was laid off from her job as an executive assistant at a local union in 2007, she can count the number of temp jobs she’s gotten on one hand.

She spends her days reading the Bible and learning the latest software to keep her resume current. Right now, she’s mastering Windows 7 and the latest Microsoft Office.

“It never occurred to me that at my age now I would have no benefits, no pension, and be totally unemployed and virtually unable to reenter the workforce,” she said. “There is a very good chance that a lot of us in our 40s and 50s will never be gainfully employed again.”

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is over 12 percent, and higher in the black and Hispanic communities. Yvonne says the few places that are hiring where she lives don’t even pay enough to make ends meet.

“What jobs there are out there, they don’t pay a living wage. There’s no place in this country where you can live off of $10 an hour, not even if you’re single and certainly not if you have a family,” she said.

Yvonne’s list of unpaid bills keeps rising, and the resources she has left to search for a job are waning.

“I have a $1,000 power bill. It’s by the grace of God that they transferred the service since I moved,” she said. “My phone bill is due today — I’m going to be getting a call soon saying that if I don’t pay, my service will be disconnected. I don’t own a car anymore. I don’t even have money to buy a bus pass.”

Her family and friends have helped out by paying her phone bill or her rent when they can, but they’re struggling too.

“There is only so much they can do. They can’t do it every month,” she said.

Yvonne, who was born in Alabama and grew up during the Civil Rights movement there, says she can’t fathom not exercising her right to vote, and yet she feels that there’s no one left to vote for that will respond to her pleas for help. Our elected officials, she says, seem more interested in their own job security than the suffering of the unemployed.

“It’s not representation of the people, by the people and for the people unless they’re the people,” she says.

Yvonne says she’s not worried about the future, but only because of her strong faith. Whether she finds a job or ends up in a homeless shelter next month, she says she knows she will be alright.

“It’s all in the hands of God. I fall asleep praying to God and thanking him for delivering me. He’s the only hope I’ve had, and he’s not failed me yet,” she said.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “We Played By the Rules, and Now We’ve Lost Everything”

99ers-hdrI wrote this series on the 99ers – folks who have maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment but hadn’t found a job – back in 2010 for Change.org. The pieces may be a few years old, but I was surprised how incredibly relevant they still were as I read through them. According to the February jobs report, 38 percent of the unemployed in the U.S. are considered “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Why 27 weeks? Because these days, the extra emergency benefits that Congress approved during the recession have lapsed, and people only get 26 weeks of unemployment compensation from their state.

I need to follow up with these folks and see how they are doing now. I’ll put that on my never-ending to-do list.

Anyway, meet Ricky, a father and an electrician. His story about selling his tools to pay for his son’s medication broke my heart. Take a look, and check back for the other four posts later this week:

 

If it weren’t for his son, says Ricky Macoy, he doesn’t know if he would have survived these last two years of unemployment.

“I suffer from depression,” he says. “There are times when my situation makes me feel so hopeless I can barely get out of bed. There have been times, like about a month ago, where I was almost suicidal. If it hadn’t been for my son, I don’t know … ”

Ricky, who’s 52, has worked as an electrician for 30 years, but was laid off from his job working on ocean-going vessels in Louisiana in November of 2008 and hasn’t worked since. He and his 11-year-old son, John, have been barely scraping by during that time. He’s spent all the money he had saved in John’s college fund, and still, they may be evicted from their Texas home next week.

“I’m worried to death that if I get to be homeless that my son’s going to be take away from me and put in foster care,” Ricky says.

He says his son has been putting on a brave face, but Ricky knows it’s been hard on him too.

“He worries. He just kind of keeps things bottled up inside,” he says. “I haven’t said anything to him about the foster care. He’s very brave. He knows right now things are hard.”

Not being able to provide for his son has been the worst part of his unemployment, Ricky says. He says so many men like him have provided for their families for years, a role they’ve cherished.

“It makes you feel good when you bring home the check and you know everything is going to be alright,” he says. “When there’s nothing coming in, you feel like a failure. When I look my kid in the eye to tell him I don’t have money for a field trip for school — $12 for a field trip for school. I didn’t have it.”

But the worst day was when he had to scrounge up $5 for John’s asthma medicine. He went to the clinic and asked for samples, but no one had any. He had to sell some of his tools he used to use for work — a tool worth more than $150 sold for $10 — to get money for medicine.

Ricky says it’s maddening to know you’ve done nothing to deserve this suffering, and yet, there’s nothing you can do to escape it. He says millions like him are suffering, and no one seems to notice.

“I worked hard, played by the rules and I done lost everything I worked my whole life for,” he says. “We’re the people who helped build this economy. We’re the ones who got up every day, put our boots on and went to work. We played by the rules, and now we’ve lost everything.”

Ricky got about 60 weeks of unemployment, but his last check came February 7th. Texas didn’t qualify for Tier IV benefits because its state unemployment rate wasn’t high enough. Ricky starts his day every morning looking for jobs anywhere he can find one.

He had just gotten back from a job interview when I spoke to him yesterday morning.  Ricky was hopeful about it, but the employer still had 18 more men to interview for the position.

He says in times like these, he and his son have had to rely on prayer when they haven’t had anything else to get them through.

A few months back, when they didn’t have the money to pay the rent and were going to be evicted, he and his son got on their knees and prayed for a solution. The next day, Ricky’s brother came up with the money to pay their rent.

“My son said to me, ‘Dad, prayer really works, doesn’t it?'” Ricky says. “I said, ‘Yes, it does, son.'”

Hope seems dim for Ricky right now. He asked me if I would say a prayer for him.

I said I would.

Update 4/30/2010: Ricky called me this morning to thank me for my prayers. He got the job. He says it’s like 1,000 pounds being lifted from his shoulders. We’re so happy for him and wish him and his son the very best.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting

As Hotel Chateau closes, couple fears becoming homeless

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

The Bible’s entire 23rd Psalm is written in marker, framed on the yellowed stucco wall next to the red flyswatter hanging from a nail. Cans of food line the shelf in the tiny coat closet, a makeshift pantry.

The psalm is a reminder to keep going when times get tough, said Curtis Horton, 48. He and his partner, Henrietta Riley, 54, are residents of the Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy hotel in Lakeview. And for them, times have been tough and quite possibly could get even tougher. They recently found out that the hotel has been sold and will be emptied and rehabbed.

“We read it for strength,” Horton said of the psalm on the wall. “It’s something to keep us going and keep us focused on making it in the world. It’s a message for us to keep the strength.”

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” –Psalm 23:2

Horton and Riley have lived at the Chateau for about a year. They’ve bounced around from place to place for the last few years, even moving in with Riley’s daughter in her Section 8 apartment for awhile. But when that building was unexpectedly sold, they ended up here, one of the few remaining SROs in Lakeview.

The day they came to the Chateau, there was one vacant room, but it wouldn’t be available until repairs were made. They spent the day in a nearby Starbucks and the night on the street. The next day, they moved in.

“This is my home,” said Riley. “It’s the only place I have to call home besides a shopping cart.”

“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his names’ sake.” –Psalm 23:3

Horton and Riley don’t mind that the Chateau is run down. They wave off the building’s code violations, saying it’s an affordable place to stay in a good area. Riley says she loves the neighborhood’s culture and diversity, but mostly, they’re grateful for its safety.

“Try living on the West Side in Austin where you have to look over your shoulder any minute, waiting for someone to jump you or rob you. I’ve been hit over the head, stabbed,” said Riley.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me.” –Psalm 23:4

But now that the Chateau has been sold and will be gutted and rehabbed, residents fear it will be reopened as higher-end studio apartments like other former SROs in the neighborhood. Horton and Riley are scared. They don’t know of anywhere to live that they can afford.

Riley worked as an insurance evaluator for 25 years, but then had a brain aneurysm. She’s been on disability ever since. Horton, a former cook, is now unemployed, but gets a $400 check each month from a trust his grandmother left him.

“It’s even hard to get in a shelter nowadays,” said Horton.

At the Chateau’s housing-court hearing on Jan. 29, inspectors complained that trash chutes were clogged up to the second and third floors, with garbage spilling into the hallways. The fire alarm system isn’t reliable, and the door to the elevator doesn’t open ll the way. But the couple’s apartment is neat and clean. They take pride in it.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” –Psalm 23:6

The latest housing-court hearing really shook up Horton and Riley. They just keep repeating the same thing:

“I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

This post was originally published on Feb. 18, 2013 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, One Story Up

A Garden Grows in Cabrini-Green

Community garden along Chicago avenue near Cabrini-GreenSometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her ownndressing, but it wasn’t any good. This week, she’s trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that’s a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it’s unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie’s a long-time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It’s the garden that’s brought them together. It’s what the garden is about.

Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project,several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play

Ms. Jones, who’s 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she’s passed on to all her
kids and any one she’s known: “Wherever you go, get involved in the community.
And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

“Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?” she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only five or six families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It’s a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it’s tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I’ve read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults
come, it’s more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it’s working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren’t here, mixing and learning from each other, where’s the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She’s a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

“This stuff can’t be phony,” Robin says. “You can’t create intimacies where intimacies don’t exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision.”

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. “What makes your place great?” is one of their new initiatives on placemaking – creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places – they think – have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There’s something about a tiny person who doesn’t know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It’s unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it’s also unrealistic to expect that the change we’re looking for – the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people – would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

”This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society,” Robin says.

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes – we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she’s ready to see it grow again.

“I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It’s gonna be good again, and I’m still gonna be here.”

This post was originally published on Sept. 23, 2009 at One Story Up.

Enterprise Stories, Investigative Reporting

Dwindling SROs: Hotel Chateau residents fear they’ll soon be homeless

Margaret and Tony don’t have much, but they get by. Sometimes, Tony jokes, their 12-year-old cat, Jason, eats better than them.

Margaret’s rough hands look like they’ve been scrubbed clean, almost to the point of being painful. She has the kind of manners that make you think she was brought up by a very attentive mother—please, thank you and pardon me.

She manages polite conversation, even though she’s terribly worried. Tony is too. They live at Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy building in East Lakeview, and it’s recently been sold. If the Chateau goes the way of the handful of other SRO buildings nearby, the couple will soon be priced out.

Tony and Margaret’s names have been changed to protect their identity because they fear they’ll be kicked out of the building. Together, they survive on $1,066 a month, with each getting $533 in disability checks. Margaret has epilepsy. Tony has a hearing problem. They’ve been married for 12 years, throughout which they’ve moved from place to place in Chicago every couple of years as the rent became unaffordable.

They don’t love living at the Chateau, but it’s a roof over their head. When Tony talks about his neighbors, many of whom are drug addicts and alcoholics, he hesitates to bad-mouth them, knowing they need a place to live too.

“Let’s just say that some of our neighbors leave something to be desired,” he says.

What will happen to Margaret, Tony and their more undesirable neighbors? Local residents are trying to figure that out.

Their Day In Court

At a Tuesday court hearing, residents found out that the Chateau will be vacated and gutted. The hearing was on the building’s code violations, but residents had hoped to learn more about the sale.

In fact, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman had previously said more information about the owners would be revealed at the court hearing. But on Tuesday, Cappleman instead declined to state the buyer’s name, saying he had promised the new owner not to reveal the identity.

The Chicago Reporter asked Cappleman why he would make such a promise, given that Chateau residents, his constituents, are anxious about the building’s fate. He waved his hand and said, “There’s something called the First Amendment.”

Cappleman also said he wasn’t sure when the owner’s name would be disclosed. He emphasized the Chateau’s current condition was hazardous to its residents.

“My focus right now is on saving people’s lives,” said Cappleman. “My first priority is that the residents are safe.”

The Chateau has been in housing court ever since an inspection in the fall found numerous building violations, including problems with fire escapes, smoke alarms and trash piling up in hallways and garbage chutes.

A new corporation named 3838 North Broadway, the Chateau’s address, was established on Jan. 3, according to the Illinois Corporations Database, which is part of the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s not clear who owns that business, though the database listed attorney Gerard Walsh as its registered agent. Walsh did not answer his phone or return voicemails seeking comment. The attorney who represented the corporation in court, Mitchell Asher, declined to comment on the identity of the building’s new owner.

Real estate mogul Jamie Purcell of BJB Properties has already purchased four former SROs in the neighborhood–the Ambers, the Bel-Air, the Sheffield and the Abbott. All of those buildings have been vacated, rehabbed and are being reopened as high-end studio apartment buildings that are not affordable for Margaret and Tony, who pay $575 a month at the Chateau. Purcell did not return several voicemails the Reporter left at his Park Ridge office.

Searching For Home

Meanwhile, Margaret and Tony are looking for another place to live, but they are not too optimistic. Most nonprofits or programs that have low-income housing don’t allow couples to live together. Or they have a long waiting list.

“We are on a number of waiting lists,” says Margaret.

When they hear that neighborhood residents are afraid of the people who live at the Chateau, they sympathize. They’re often bothered by their neighbors too.

But among the 138 rooms at the Chateau, they say, are people like themselves—working-class people, poor people, ordinary people who do not have any other place to go.

Chester Kropidlowski is one of those in the neighborhood who’s bothered by Chateau patrons. Some of them, he says, panhandle in front of the building; others loiter there too or at a bus shelter nearby. Neighbors feel the building’s residents contribute to crime in the area.

But Kropidlowski also recognizes that there are people whom he described as “poor souls” living at the Chateau and causing no trouble. He contends that the big problem is how the building is managed.

“The same person has owned it for many, many years,” says Kropidlowski, president of the board of the local neighborhood group, East Lake View Neighbors. “Apparently, the person lives in a gated community in Florida, impossible to contact, and he has only responded to concerns in the past when he had no other choice.”

Kropidlowski is referring to Jack Gore, who has owned other troubled Chicago SROs. In 2008, Gore relinquished ownership of the Diplomat Hotel, also in Lakeview, when the building began to rack up fines from code violations. The business number for Gore at Cedar Hotel has been disconnected. Gore’s lawyer, Leon Wexler, confirmed Gore no longer owns the Chateau, but he wouldn’t comment further.

A Safe Haven, A Safe Community

It’s clear the Chateau isn’t the neighborhood’s favorite, but Kropidlowski hopes it can be turned into something he and others would be “proud to have in the community.”

In essence, Kropidlowski, Margaret and Tony all want the same thing–a safe Hotel Chateau and a safe neighborhood. It’s just that getting it will likely mean Margaret and Tony can no longer live there.

“They’ll straighten it up, and then they’re going to charge a lot more money,” says Margaret.

Sreya Sarkar has noticed the decline of available SRO housing in the neighborhood in her job as education and advocacy director at Lakeview Pantry, a food pantry that sits across the street from the Chateau. She estimates that Lakeview has lost at least 400 affordable units over the last two years.

Working at the pantry, she gets to meet plenty of Chateau residents like Margaret and Tony.

“They’re good citizens,” says Sarkar. “They don’t cause trouble. They don’t have substance abuse issues. They want to live peacefully there. They just don’t have another place to go to because other SROs have closed down.”

A local group that advocates for affordable housing, Lakeview Action Coalition, is hoping it can convince the hotel’s new owner to keep at least part of the building affordable. Bharathi Gunasekaran, a housing organizer with the coalition, says many of the Chateau’s tenants come from other places nearby that have closed.

“A lot of people have moved from one SRO to another as they’ve been closing,” says Gunasekaran.

Gunasekaran was upset to hear that the building would be vacated.

“Once the residents move out, they have no chance of moving back in,” she said.

After the court hearing, residents of the Chateau surrounded Cappleman, questioning him about the building’s future and their own. When Cappleman replied that he was working with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services to help residents find housing, all Margaret could do was sigh.

“We’re going to end up on the street,” she said.

First posted at Chicago Muckrakers on Jan. 31, 2013