At a women’s shelter in West Englewood, residents and staff struggle to make ends meet
By Clara Kirk’s account, it all started with a rumor. She had hoped to turn an abandoned house at 6430 South Seeley Avenue into a shelter for homeless men. But someone got wind of the plan, and whispers seeped their way into the building’s brick and mortar foundation. In the minds of neighbors and community members, her homeless shelter quickly transformed into a home for pedophiles. Unable to raise the funds to have it renovated, and without the resources to maintain it, the empty building was vandalized and fell into disrepair. The property accrued thousands of dollars in fines due to resulting code violations.
Kirk’s organization, the West Englewood United Organization, had begun with two feet firmly planted in the community, and maintained a good reputation across the city. Yet the very force that propelled the organization from its founding—its neighborhood spirit—may have been its downfall.
The WEUO was formed in 1983, just after Harold Washington was elected mayor on a platform of progressive, locally-based reform. With Washington’s blessing, the organization sought to find housing for Englewood’s homeless women and children, people who needed refuge from the overcrowding so often mandated by poverty. This was no small task in a neighborhood that experienced the urban economic challenges of the seventies and eighties—closed factories, rising crime, depopulation—head on.
Four years after the group was founded, the doors opened at Clara’s House. With thirty-five beds, the house functions as a shelter for homeless women and their dependents, allowing them to stay up to 120 days. Once a rectory, the building was donated by the local archdiocese. The following year, Clara’s Place—a complex of thirteen apartments intended as longer-term transitional housing—opened down the street from Clara’s House. For years, the WEUO received funding from both government grants and private donors, money that was essential for the organization to maintain operations. Today, those operations are at risk due to a sequence of events that can be hard to follow. That’s often how it is with rumors.
At Clara’s Place, on 63rd and Paulina, the lobby walls are painted yellow and white, quilted with grip-and-grin shots and certificates addressed to the WEUO, to Clara’s House, and to Clara Kirk herself. In the pictures, she’s petite and glowing. The plaques gleam and official signatures sprawl across cardstock.
The first person I encounter when I arrive at Clara’s Place is not Clara, but a woman sitting at a green folding chair behind a large wooden desk. When she speaks, the upper half of her mouth remains motionless, so that words just manage to slide out. In this way, I think at first that her name is Sandra. This is my first introduction to Nadine Sanders. She gets up from the desk and walks to the door to look for Kirk, with whom I have a ten o’clock appointment.
“You see that man coming across the street? He’s a walker, doing all that bouncing. He walks a lot, yes sir,” she says. She sidles back to the desk. Kirk hasn’t arrived yet, so together we watch the passersby on 63rd Street through the white metal grating on the door, a radio talking in the background.
Clara Kirk comes in at 10:25 and looks a little startled to see me sitting in the folding chair by the front desk. Once she is reminded of our ten o’clock appointment, she holds my hand for a penitent minute as we make our introductions.
Since fines against the WEUO were first levied in 2005, the organization’s debt to the city has grown to $41,969. This includes fines for not keeping up with the maintenance of the Seeley Avenue building, where the men’s shelter was supposed to go, in addition to violations at Clara’s Place. However, fines for unresolved building violations did not preclude the organization from receiving public grants until 2007. Kirk reports that the WEUO stopped receiving public money on December 15 of that year.
Furthermore, in 2007, the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness reported that the WEUO was unable to match the Housing and Urban Development funding it received in that year—$485,990—with the equivalent amount of private funding. Unable to match federal grants with private funding, the organization has not received public funding since 2007.
In the last six years, the amount of money the WEUO has received has dropped precipitously. In 2007 the organization reported $1.9 million received in public support, a category that in nonprofit tax vocabulary misleadingly includes gifts, grants, and contributions bestowed not only by government branches but also by private corporations and individuals. The following year—when Kirk reports that the city put the South Seeley debt on the books—the amount dropped to $183,236. Later, in 2011, “public” contributions were reported at $21,423. Operating on a budget that is just a fraction of what it was six years ago, Clara hasn’t been able to pay any of her employees since 2008.
Kirk, seventy-two, defends herself and her West Englewood United Organization with stern looks, her molasses eyes thick and unyielding behind rectangular glasses. We talk in her office, in two pleather chairs across from her desk. On top of the desk, papers are scattered and piled, with periodicals, pamphlets, and bills cascading onto the floor. The parade of award certificates continues along the wall.
“It started because women and children were homeless and needed a place to stay,” says Kirk matter-of-factly. “The organization came about in order to prepare sandwiches and soup for people because there were so many people without light and gas and in the process of trying to find a place because Englewood—West Englewood, where I live—does not have a community center.”
She sips coffee from a mug patterned with small red hearts, her hair descending in coppery ringlets that shake with every gesture. When she makes a point, her head undertakes a single assertive nod in my direction.
“Englewood does not have the money or the resources to take care, not only of Clara’s House, but no entity that’s in Englewood. This community has been raped of all its values.”
When asked to unpack this statement, she explains: “We don’t have grocery stores and stores in Englewood that you could go to and ask for help or to get a job or places like that…We don’t have community resources where an organization can reach out or a person that was homeless or battered could go and get a meal or carry a child. We don’t have that in Englewood, especially in West Englewood,” west of Ashland Avenue.
“I’ve been here since 1974,” she continues, “and when I moved here it was not like it is now, it never had community centers or anything of that sort, but it had love and respect and the children went to school and people cared about the community and things of that sort. Whereas now we have so many dropout rates, and gangs and drugs have raped our community, with the help of people not caring about it. So we’re in the position that we’re in now.”
Kirk’s explanation follows a familiar narrative: a generational shift ripped open by the rise of hard drugs and organized crime, with younger generations showing apathy to the community, a golden age lost, and so on.
She is a booster, though. “No matter how many murders they say that happen in Englewood, to me Englewood is still a nice and a good place to live…The El, the bus, the schools, they’re right here. Yes, we need help, but they’re here.”
Nadine Sanders has been living at Clara’s Place for ten years. “My life has been pretty good so far,” she says, her fingers laced in her lap. We’re sitting in her apartment at Clara’s Place, and the furniture is spare. On the wall adjacent to the television is a low shelf crowded with Hummel figurines. The smoke alarm beeps once a minute.
Miss Sanders, as she prefers to be addressed, moved in to Clara’s Place after losing a job with UPS—she could no longer afford to pay rent in the three-bedroom apartment she was living in with her daughters and granddaughters in the western suburb of Maywood. She says she has lived in “nice” apartments since the age of twenty, when she moved to the Chicago area from Alabama to join her sisters and find a job after dropping out of high school. She lived with her sisters until getting married, and is now divorced. Since then she has had two successive romantic partners, in a “live-in” situation with the first and with the second to “just have a good time.” Her youngest daughter, a nineteen-year-old, lives with her here. Three older children live independently in Chicago and Detroit.
Clara’s Place used to be called Clara’s Second Stage, a transitional housing space where women lived free of charge but could do little more than attend work, school, and the shelter’s programming. A few years ago, Sanders says, the program became “permanent housing” and started to take thirty percent of each resident’s annual income “so we could have more freedom.” Sanders, who remains unemployed, keeps her apartment at Clara’s by working as a volunteer at the front desk. It seems closer to a sort of collective living situation, in which those who contribute may stay.
However, the strictures of shelter life still remain in place. Sanders says this may be more due to her unemployment than to her living situation. “What I miss is being more independent, more active in having a career working and being out there with the public, seeing things, hearing things, good or bad…When I moved here to Illinois I had some pretty decent friends, girlfriends; we would go out, do different things…I get a chance to people visit but not much. As I call it, every blue moon.”
As Miss Sanders points out, these social connections can fall to the wayside for women who live in transitional or emergency housing. The need for a roof over one’s head precedes the need to stay in the neighborhood, though the practices and networks cultivated in independent living are essential to “maintaining,” as Sanders says. Oftentimes, shelter residents withdraw into passivity that can have effects on physical and mental health, a condition that has come to be known as “shelterization.”
The very circumstance of living in a shelter can also have detrimental effects on mental health—itself essential for moving forward, whether by finding a longer-term solution to a housing problem, healthcare, or employment. Additionally, many people who find themselves homeless already have serious mental health issues due to the extreme stresses of living on the streets. According to Dr. Doriane Miller, director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the UofC, those who find themselves in emergency shelters often have “inadequate structural resources…to keep them in supportive housing settings.” Often, shelter residents require the assistance of specialists like social workers, who are not often available in short-term shelters.
There’s frankness in the way in which Nadine Sanders speaks about her circumstances, and she exudes calm, relating her story with self-assurance. Perhaps ten years of living in “transitional” housing mandates a certain attitude of acceptance. She’s still struggling to make the transition, and says that she’ll be able to pay rent on her own apartment if she finds a full-time job and maybe takes on some part-time babysitting work. There are some hurdles to clear before she can obtain work, though, including passing the GED qualifying exam and acquiring money for transportation to potential job opportunities.
When I ask how she’ll pay for the GED exam, she replies, “Well, I’ll put it like this: know people. Hopefully one day you’ll just pay it back. Like me for instance, if I need something real serious, like right now I’m debating on trying to get some money to get a thirty-day bus card, so I can go to work…I got until about the middle of next month to make up my mind.” The way she phrases it, it’s only a matter of taking the steps to implement her plan.
As she says of Kirk: “She give us a place to stay, it’s up to us to do the rest. It’s just like a regular normal landlord, if you agree say you can have this apartment, it’s up to us. The individual do whatever it need to do to maintain.”
In 2001, Kirk purchased the abandoned building at 6430 South Seeley for one dollar, paid to the City of Chicago. She then conveyed the building to the care of the WEUO. This move would become problematic—rumors swirling—when she tried to convey the property back to the city in early 2006, having given up her plan to turn it into a shelter for homeless men.
“The deed wasn’t properly transferred back to the city, so it was finally conveyed back to the city in May of 2006,” says Roderick Drew, spokesman for the City of Chicago. The fines that were accrued between January and May of 2006—due to the lack of building maintenance during this limbo period—have been withdrawn from the debt owed.
“The building was vacant and unsecured, had broken windows, and did not have proper permits for work that was being done,” says Drew of violations that were identified in 2005 and 2006. So it appears that there was trouble with maintaining the house before Kirk attempted to convey the property back to the city in January of 2006.
When she assumed the property, Kirk was counting on easy access to new funds. “At the time we did not have the money to renovate the house,” she told me. Continued or even increased funding, whether public or private, must have been anticipated, and perhaps rightly so: the community service laurels that the organization has received suggest widespread public approval, with very little reason to believe that it would not continue.
According to Kirk, the dissolving of the men’s shelter is the pivotal incident in the financial decline of the West Englewood United Organization. Without it, it seems, the WEUO would be pedaling along with the help of public funding.
“It seems that the organization and Ms. Kirk didn’t want the property anymore, so they wanted to give it back to the city,” is all that Drew can say on the matter. Neither Nick Lucius, attorney for the City of Chicago handling the case, nor Shawn Warner, attorney for Clara Kirk, responded to repeated requests for statements which may have pointed to an answer.
In Miss Sanders’ apartment, I don’t notice that the fronts of the cabinets are covered in a paper patterned in the style of wood, the corners peeling and contrasting with the grain of the frames, until the end of our visit. Miss Sanders points them out to me, smiling at her nineteen-year-old daughter’s willingness to help around the apartment. “She’s got patience with me, she’s good. And out in public she’s beautiful. Here at home: so-so!”
The door to her daughter’s room is closed, but I can just see a sliver of daylight and a white bedpost from the table in the living room. Sanders tiptoes over and sticks her head in. “Let her see you,” she says. A silent refusal follows.
We step back out onto the deck and look out east through Englewood. Shining through the slats in the back porch, the sun emphasizes features of the landscape: the brick of neighboring buildings, tree branches, gravel lots, and alleyways.
Before I leave, I ask to use the restroom in the waiting area. “I don’t think there’s any toilet paper,” says Miss Sanders. Poking my head into the bathroom, I verify this. Before I can articulate a word of protest, she walks over to the adjacent kitchenette and rips open a package of plastic dining utensils. She hands the napkin to me without a word.
In 2004, the Center for Impact Research released a study of women’s homelessness in Chicago. They found that the majority of women living in emergency shelters had never lived independently of a family member or a romantic partner. Their main impetus for seeking emergency housing was most commonly economic or social in nature, typically due to a job loss or breakup.
While Sanders identifies her unemployment as the principal cause of her move to Clara’s Place, her family circumstances also align with broader trends that the study identified—in particular, the fact that she has had multiple longer-term partners with whom she has lived and borne a higher than average number of children. Women are often the primary caregivers for their children, and as a result incur additional responsibility for their children’s basic needs. The study came in response to an unusual pattern that social service providers were beginning to see in the city: an increase in women and dependents seeking temporary shelter during the warmer summer months.
In 2003, the year prior to the study, Mayor Daley endorsed an ambitious 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. It aimed to shift the focus of city programming from emergency shelters to longer-term and transitional housing.
Ten years later, homelessness is far from over in Chicago. Mayor Emanuel sought to revisit the Plan in a 2012 endeavor entitled The Plan 2.0. In the intervening years, the amount of transitional housing has grown while the number of emergency shelters has decreased. The emphasis remains on longer-term housing, but emergency shelters are still needed, as are measures to prevent homelessness before it begins.
Part of preventing homelessness is ensuring that there is sufficient affordable housing. For single mothers such as Sanders, who are not making enough to pay rent and support children on their own, ready availability of an affordable apartment would alleviate the risky intermediate step of life at an emergency shelter, or the manifold dangers of sleeping on the street if worst came to worst. It may also discourage women from overcrowding apartments with other families, or remaining in romantic relationships simply to maintain roofs over their heads.
This was the intention with Daley’s Plan for Transformation, announced in October of 1999. In the subsequent years, high-rise developments were abandoned in favor of townhomes; collaborations with private developers were initiated; and a mixed-income diversification strategy was implemented, all to the tune of $1 billion. At the beginning of 2013, the Chicago Housing Authority estimated the number of people on the waitlist for subsidized housing and housing vouchers at just over 91,000.
On April 29, the same day that Miss Sanders pointed out her repapered cabinets to me, Kirk and her legal representation made the latest in a string of counteroffers to resolve the WEUO’s debt to the city.
The city offered to settle for $20,900, and has received $2,500 in intercept funds from the State of Illinois which has been applied to the debt. However, Kirk—or Kirk’s legal representation—has attended only one hearing in order to have the total debt reduced, and so far the counter-offers have been “modest,” according to city spokesman Roderick Drew.
On the counter-offer suggested on April 29, Drew says: “There’s a pretty substantial difference between the two figures, so we’re continuing to talk with her attorney and continuing to work on the settlement.”
The fines are not due to the building at South Seeley alone. “There were violations at 63rd and Paulina [the location of Clara’s Place] and those are the ones from 2010 and 2012, included bedbug infestation, broken doors, broken windows, defective porch, missing outlet covers,” says Drew. As of late March, the city doubted whether or not the WEUO had implemented the mandated improvements.
Kirk says she took pictures of the improvements made to Clara’s Place, and made a court appearance in order to demonstrate the changes made. She denies receiving any notice of hearings for the building at South Seeley. “I’ve never got any court appearance from Seeley…but for here [at Clara’s Place] I made a court appearance; for here, I even carried pictures where we had done work. They wouldn’t even look at them—the person said to me ‘We don’t need to look at any pictures, just repair the things that need to be done.’ ” Clara says the violations included broken windows, a broken porch, and missing caps on electrical sockets. Despite her omission of the bedbug problem and defective doors in her account of the story to me, this aligns with the city’s account.
A mile east of Clara’s Place is the Englewood Neighborhood Health Clinic, a thriving nonprofit run by a city-wide organization called CommunityHealth. The clinic serves thousands of clients living below 250 percent of the poverty level, and since its opening in 2010 has collaborated with multiple local organizations and larger entities, including the UofC and Cook County Hospitals.
“We reached out to a number of community-based organizations,” says executive director Judith Haasis, “to begin to identify where the best location would be for a CommunityHealth satellite, and all messages pointed to Englewood based upon the need.” Just as Kirk received the go-ahead from Mayor Harold Washington in 1983 to begin a neighborhood organization with donated property, CommunityHealth took advantage of a major government donation: that of space.
Unlike the WEUO, however, CommunityHealth is structured to survive with minimal public funding. Less than ten percent of its operations funding comes from the government, a fact that seems to indicate that nonprofits which are initiated from outside specific communities have an easier time than grassroots neighborhood organizations.
The WEUO does have a history of high profile benefactors, among them Fox News anchor Robin Robinson, radio personality Tony Sculfield, and major Obama donor Lester Coney. The organization’s board, which was once composed of members of the West Englewood community, is now an assembly of affluent Chicagoans. As recently as 2011, R. Kelly performed a benefit concert for Clara’s House. After his performance, Kirk joined him onstage in a girlish embrace. Yet despite such shows of support, the WEUO—by its own account—is struggling.
Providing housing seems like a simple problem in contrast to that of providing medical care. However, the opening of the Englewood Neighborhood Health Clinic was an effort that brought together highly skilled individuals: Haasis and others with years of experience in medically-oriented social work and nonprofit management; medical minds from the UofC and Cook County; and neighborhood residents and community organizations who had distinct ideas of the services needed.
Perhaps an approach such as that of CommunityHealth—in which a diverse network of supporters is tapped not only for funding but also for expertise—would better serve the women of Clara’s House and Clara’s Place than a golden Rolodex. The instability of homelessness requires a multifaceted treatment that requires more than solving the problem of a physical space to sleep, as Kirk herself attests.
As it stands, that’s all that Clara’s Place and Clara’s House really have, those buildings on Paulina. If something were to happen to Kirk, by her own accounts and those of her residents, the organization would dissolve. The termination of the WEUO’s activities would mean fifty-two fewer beds for the women of the WEUO and for City of Chicago, which continues to refer clients to Kirk.
When Miss Sanders and I talk about what’s most difficult about shelter life, Sanders doesn’t dwell long on her own state of mind. Instead, she shakes her head at the woman who has lent her name to the place Sanders calls home.
“I don’t see how but she deals with it and she puts up with it. I don’t know how. I say we gonna pinch her sometimes to see if she’s for real…she says the only reason why she does it is because she asked for this, she got it, so she’s planning on going on through with it as long as she possibly can.”