Homeless memorial service to honor pair who became volunteer leaders

There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of service providers and advocacy groups has tried to make sure those lives are recognized.

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Robert Whited, at right in stocking cap, at a Cubs game with a group from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, for which he became an active volunteer. He was part of a group seeking to improve conditions for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Robert Whited, at right in stocking cap, at a Cubs game with a group from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, for which he became an active volunteer. He was part of a group seeking to improve conditions for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Provided photo

Robert Rohdenburg and Robert Whited are two of the people I normally might have expected to see at the Chicago Homeless Persons Memorial this Tuesday evening at Old St. Patrick’s Church.

The two men overcame homelessness and became eager advocates for others in their situation, finding purpose in their lives by volunteering in support of affordable housing efforts.

Unfortunately, instead of joining in the prayers this year, Rohdenburg and Whited are among the dead who will be recognized at the annual service that seeks to honor the homeless men and women who lost their lives in the previous year.

There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of homeless service providers and advocacy groups has gathered whatever names and information they can find to make sure those lives are recognized.

The names are read aloud. A candle is lit for each.

It can be a haunting ceremony, especially coming during the Christmas season.

It’s also an important reminder that the people we call “the homeless” are really a collection of individuals from different backgrounds and with different challenges, not unlike the rest of us.

Robert Rohdenburg, at podium, became an outspoken supporter of housing rights after he was part of a mass eviction of tenants from the Chateau Hotel and became homeless himself.

Robert Rohdenburg, at podium, became an outspoken supporter of housing rights after he was part of a mass eviction of tenants from the Chateau Hotel and became homeless himself.

Provided photo

I met Rohdenburg in 2013 when the Chateau Hotel in Lakeview was in its death throes.

The Chateau was one of many North Side single-room occupancy, or SRO, hotels bought by developers over the past decade and remade into upscale apartments for young professionals.

Rohdenburg was among the tenants being kicked out, many of them seniors or people with disabilities. He was one of the last holdouts. When the building finally closed, he was homeless for nine months, not for the first time in his life.

During this process, Rohdenburg, a quiet man who had never been much of a joiner, was energized into becoming an activist in the SRO preservation movement — at first fighting for himself, later on behalf of others being displaced.

I never knew Rohdenburg’s complete back story. He’d once held a good job, he told me. He also had a hoarding problem that made it difficult to keep housing, he said.

But Rohdenburg was luckier than most. He landed a home at the then-newly opened Buffett Place, a topnotch supportive-housing facility constructed from the former Diplomat Hotel.

With his own housing at last secure, Rohdenburg was able to devote himself to his affordable housing work. His well-written email updates on protests and legislation became a constant presence in the inbox of reporters, politicians and others.

“He was so focused. It seemed to be all of his attention and time,” said Susan Armstrong, who worked with Rohdenburg through the community group ONE Northside.

So focused that he hadn’t been attending to his own health. In January, Rohdenburg died of colon cancer at 59.

Though their backgrounds were different, Whited’s story had similarities to Rohdenburg’s. He’d been homeless, living on the street or doubled-up with friends, for many years, that is when he wasn’t detained at the Cook County Jail on minor offenses.

Whited had substance-abuse issues and health problems that included diabetes. He also was dealing with complications from a bad case of frostbite.

Last winter, he got involved through the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in a group working to improve the situation of individuals re-entering the community from jail or prison.

Like Rohdenburg, Whited threw himself at the chance to make a contribution, accompanying the group on four trips to Springfield to lobby legislators. Unlike most people placed in that situation, he wasn’t intimidated, either.

“The moment he saw a legislator, he just ran to catch up with them,” said Bisma Shoukat, an organizer for the coalition.

Whited even chaired the last meeting he attended with the re-entry group.

“You could just see how excited he was to be a leader,” Shoukat said.

His friend Jenesia McNair Bey said Whited took it upon himself to begin distributing food, donated by a grocery store, to other homeless people.

But, like Rohdenburg, Whited wasn’t taking care of himself. He died in May at 44, the exact cause unknown to his friends.

A few weeks later, legislators approved the Housing as a Human Right Bill for which he had advocated.

Tuesday’s memorial service, part of a nationwide event organized by the National Coalition for the Homeless, is being supported by Ignatian Spirituality Project, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Franciscan Outreach, Old St. Pat’s and Harmony, Hope & Healing.

As the two Roberts remind us, every life deserves recognition.

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