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Seniors demand the CHA hire more bilingual staff, provide better translation services

There are 4,500 seniors with limited English proficiency living in public housing buildings across Chicago.

Members of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus stand in front of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office at City Hall
Members of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus stand in front of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office at City Hall to demand the Chicago Housing Authority provide better language access services.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

Seniors living in public housing buildings who struggle to communicate in English say they’re being hung out to dry and want Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s help.

Members of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a grassroots activist group with dozens of members across the city, held a news conference in front of Lightfoot’s City Hall office Thursday to recount harrowing stories of being lost in translation with the Chicago Housing Authority.

Maria Perez said she couldn’t take a hot shower for three months in her one-bedroom apartment at a CHA building in Lincoln Park because she couldn’t communicate with management about the problem. Another resident said he was pressured to sign a lease with the CHA that wasn’t translated into his primary language. Others worried about possibly being evicted for misunderstanding correspondence from the agency.

In a statement, the CHA said its translation services are available around the clock over the phone, online and in person. But seniors at the news conference said the agency isn’t doing enough.

“Before Mayor Lightfoot was elected I shared my story about not having hot water for many months because I could not communicate with my manager. She looked me in the eye and said that she wanted to make this problem better. I am hoping that we can meet again soon to work together to solve this problem,” the 74-year-old Perez said in Spanish.

Maria Perez, 74, said she couldn’t take a hot shower for three months at her one-bedroom apartment in a Chicago Housing Authority building in Lincoln Park because she couldn’t communicate with management. She’s asking the city to do better.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

The seniors came armed Thursday with a new report that concluded the CHA’s language access reforms implemented since 2015 aren’t reaching many seniors on the ground. Those reforms included better staff training on how to assist limited English speakers and new signs and posters advertising language access services throughout its buildings.

“This report finds that both current and prospective residents faced numerous barriers in obtaining assistance in their native language,” the report stated. “Ultimately, their experiences — and any assistance they received — were contingent upon familial and community support, not a CHA process or structure.”

The report was prepared by researchers at Loyola University-Chicago based on surveys of limited English seniors living in CHA buildings, site visits and an analysis of available translation services and documents provided by the CHA.

The CHA dismissed the report as having too small of a sample size and said it hopes to meet with the caucus to address their concerns.

“We look forward to . . . discuss the caucus’ concerns [and] to listen to their ideas about how we can mutually support the needs of all CHA seniors,” the agency said in a statement.

Lightfoot’s office said the administration is “committed to . . . ensure that everyone has access to all city programs and services.”

According to the CHA, there are 4,500 seniors with limited English proficiency living in its buildings.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.