Tag Archives: homelessness

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

31 Jan

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

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Making the Invisible Visible

21 Nov

IMG_2214-thumb-300x225-18814I didn’t even see her, sitting on the West side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, but Mark did.

She was young, small, sitting with her orange tabby cat next to one of the bridges tall sculpted posts. Hundreds of people walking by almost blocked out here small, cardboard sign.

We stopped, and Mark knelt beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

Mark Horvath does this for a living. Well, sort of. He runs a site called Invisible People and travels the country, talking to homeless people and documenting their stories. He used to be homeless himself, 14 years ago on the streets of Hollywood after battling addiction. He now dedicates his life to helping people really see the homeless we walk by every day.

People like Sandra.

Sandra was sitting on the bridge because she lost her job. She moved here a few months ago, just her and her cat, and was doing alright until she got laid off. Now, she doesn’t have any money and no place to stay. She’s trying to save up enough to get back home to Seattle, but it’s hard to save money living on the street. She panhandles to raise $40 for a hotel room every night, but there isn’t much extra to save for a ticket home.

“It’s hard. If it weren’t for him,” she says, pointing to her cat, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mark gave her a pair of new, clean socks, and we moved on.

He stopped in Chicago for two days on his tour around the U.S. He’s been to Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and many more cities, just over the last two months. He let me follow him on Saturday on his journey to meet the homeless in Chicago.

It’s barely 20 feet, just the other side of the bridge, before we meet the next person.

Reggie’s been homeless for years, since his mother and brother died. After their death, his grief deadened him, making it hard for him to do anything. He lives on the street now, and he says he doesn’t even want to be here.

His pain was so visible. He’s wounded he could barely raise his head to talk to us.

I held his hand for a minute. Maybe a little longer than you should hold a stranger’s hand.

When I got on the train that morning to go down and meet Mark, I had a song stuck in my head. It was an odd song, sort of came in out of the blue. Cheery and sunny, I imagined Doris Day waltzing around a bedroom, putting her little boy to sleep.

I still had it stuck in my head when we went to meet AnnMarie. Mark had connected with AnnMarie over Twitter.Even though she’s homeless, she uses twitter and facebook to keep up with friends and family, to express herself and her frustration with a lonely world.

We sat and ate together, and AnnMarie told me about the abuse in her past that caused her PTSD and how it keeps her from holding down a job and making a more normal life for herself. She has two kids, 15 and 9, who she almost never sees.
She has a picture of them on her phone from a few years ago – smiling and waving at her. She’s applied at several supportive housing places, but they’ve turned her down because of her PTSD. She’s working on getting a place to stay and getting good health care to deal with her problems, but it isn’t easy. She takes the bus and the train for hours and hours each day, looking for someone who will be able to help her.

Often times, she comes downtown, just to spend the day, like today. She walks around and looks at things. Says hi to a few homeless people she’s made friends with.

Living on the street has been hard on her, especially because of the way men often treat her. Homeless men can be aggressive when they see a woman alone, she says, and their advances often trigger her most violent and hurtful memories from her childhood.

Mark and I walked back, he to his hotel, me to the train. He had given Annmarie a little money, something he doesn’t normally do. He does this for a living, talking to people day-in, day-out, but AnnMarie really got to him.

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.

This story was originally published at One Story Up on Nov. 21, 2009.