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‘The kids and I were sleeping in the car’: CPS parents, students talk about being homeless, urge Lightfoot to keep campaign promise

There were 16,451 homeless Chicago Public Schools students during the 2018-19 school year. Half of them were concentrated in 10 South and West Side wards.

Lake View H.S. graduate Dontay Lockett (left) and Bridgette Barber (right), a grandmother and guardian of two CPS students, at a City Hall news conference Thursday.
Lake View H.S. graduate Dontay Lockett (left) and Bridgette Barber (right), a grandmother and guardian of two CPS students, at a City Hall news conference Thursday after telling their emotional stories about homelessness.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

As the mother of six, the grandmother of nine and a victim of foreclosure, Bridgette Barber knows the pain of homelessness and the devastating impact it has on kids.

So does Lake View H.S. graduate Dontay Lockett. His “downward spiral” — to “three different states and four different high schools” — began when he, his mom and his sister were kicked out of the house by his mom’s ex-boyfriend.

On Thursday, Barber and Lockett told their stories at a City Hall news conference called to keep the heat on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deliver on her campaign promise to create a “dedicated revenue stream” to combat homelessness.

Barber spoke haltingly and through tears about the ordeal that began with a 2014 foreclosure.

“The kids and I were sleeping in the car. Hotels. On the floor of friends’ homes. We started going from house to house and living doubled up. It would become hard to bring the kids to school,” said Barber, the legal guardian of two grandchildren attending Chicago Public Schools.

“During this time, one of my daughters passed away. When families are living doubled up, we are dealing with a lot of crises. They don’t know which home they are going to be crashing at or dealing with. It takes a toll on the kids and the parents. We couldn’t sleep in the cars anymore because my grandkids would say, `I’m scared to sleep out here.’ I would have to distract them with games.”

Lockett, now a senior at Columbia College, triumphed over his homelessness with help from a loving “coach, mentor and guardian” and a scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

But he will never forget his painful roots.

“Not having a stable home plays a big mindset in CPS students [who] are homeless because we don’t know if we’re going to do our homework or if we’re gonna even make it to school,” Lockett said.

While attending Lake View, “I had to travel an hour to get to school every day and wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning just to make it on time ... And I was also living at a shelter.”

Lightfoot has talked of raising Chicago’s real estate transfer tax on the sale of $1 million homes to reduce homelessness and bankroll affordable housing.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to impose a graduated real estate transfer tax to “create a dedicated revenue stream” to reduce homelessness by 45 percent and begin to chip away at a 120,000-unit shortage of affordable units now driving Chicago’s precipitous population decline.

But she estimates the budget shortfall she inherited is $838 million, which has altered her game plan. Now, she wants to raise the transfer tax on homes sold for over $500,000, instead of $1 million — while providing unspecified “relief” to owners of homes sold for less.

If the Illinois General Assembly goes along, Lightfoot apparently would use some of the $120 million-a-year windfall to reduce the shortfall and some to honor her campaign promise.

“We are committed to addressing homelessness and housing instability and putting real resources toward these problems,” the mayor said last week, offering no details.

That’s not good enough for Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who grew up at Cabrini-Green and has focused on homelessness and affordable housing.

“I couldn’t imagine having my grandchild sleeping in the car and having the car being an alternative to sleeping on the street,” he said.

Burnett noted the real estate transfer tax has become a catch-all solution for several problems, including pensions and replacing lead service pipes. But, he argued, homeless advocates were first in line.

“We came up with the idea. … Give us a piece of it. Carve out a piece of it. Make homelessness a priority,” Burnett said.

Burnett acknowledged the estimated $838 million shortfall is the largest in recent Chicago history. Still, he’s demanding a chunk of any transfer tax revenue.

How big?

“As big as we can get,” he said.