For Englewood seniors, the struggle is real but so are the friendships


by Rebekah Frumkin and Carlos D. Williamson

For Roger Shannon, finding an affordable place to live was never a problem. His job as a social worker allowed him to live modestly but comfortably. When he first moved into senior citizen community housing 12 years ago, he continued to work, and paid for rent and food without difficulty. But after his retirement last year, he was forced to tighten his budget.

Shannon is one of roughly 74 residents in Englewood’s historic Yale building, which offers affordable housing to low-income seniors over 55. While the 65-year-old says rent at Yale is cheap when compared with other retirement communities in the city, most tenants living in the building can barely afford to stay. He added that some use the majority of the money they receive from Social Security to pay rent, which leaves them with little money left to buy food.

Shannon has watched his fellow residents pool their resources when it comes to shopping for necessities. He says some will combine their money and shop for groceries together, while others will go to pantries to avoid paying for food. For those who still find themselves struggling, work beckons.

“I’ve seen individuals here that have retired, and they’ve gone back to work,” Shannon says.

Unfortunately, low-income seniors seeking to return to work often have difficulty securing employment. According to a Senior Service America study conducted from 2000 to 2011, senior citizens 55 to 74 with incomes under the poverty line were underutilized in the American workforce at a rate of roughly 42 percent. By contrast, the underutilization rate for all 55 to 74-year-olds was just 12 percent.

Yale property manager Felicia Randell has observed the effects of this phenomenon in the Englewood community.

“Seniors 55 and older are having a hard time and getting laid off,” she says. “They end up staying with family until they turn 62. Housing for 62 and older is more common, but the units are small.”

Building owner John Luce says many Yale residents are finding the income they receive from programs like Social Security and the Illinois Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is not sufficient to cover living expenses. Roughly half are still working despite advanced age and health issues, and many others are seeking to return to work.

“There’s a lot of unexpected expenses that come up when you get older, some medical, some related to helping with kids,” Luce says. “The money goes very quickly, much more so now than when they were younger and working.”

Luce purchased the Yale building in 2000 when it was 108 years old. He renovated what he describes as an “uninhabitable mess” into 69 one-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 500 to 800 square feet. The Yale Apartments officially opened in 2003, offering both subsidized and market-rate housing to Englewood seniors. The building was subsequently designated a city landmark, and boasts a seven-story atrium flooded with natural light and potted philodendrons.

Rent ranges from $500 to $750 a month, and Section 8 vouchers, as well as vouchers from the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund and Unity Parenting are all accepted. Luce says once he’s rented an apartment, he avoids increasing the rent to match market rates.

“If I did that, the turnover rate would be fairly high,” he says. “It would set people up for failure.”

Instead Luce works with Randell to keep building expenses down. Their work has paid off: Randell manages two waiting lists of 30 prospective tenants, one for market-rate housing and a longer one for subsidized housing. Randell attributes the building’s popularity to the fact that affordable housing for seniors is hard to come by.

Luce pays for yearly barbecues and Christmas parties, and Randell works with individual residents to help them adjust to life in the building. Randell and Luce’s efforts are not lost on 74-year-old resident Barbara Smith.

“John and Felicia are some beautiful people,” Smith says. When it comes to managing finances, “John really works with us.”

Despite Luce’s generosity, Smith is still struggling to make ends meet. Her monthly SNAP benefits dropped in November to $93 from more than $120. She recently received a spend down notice indicating her Medicare coverage would be cut at the end of the month if she failed to meet a $124 spending requirement. She relies on Medicare for her physical therapy and medication, and rushed to get a dental procedure before her benefits were terminated.

But Smith says she doesn’t let these frustrations distract her from the many good things in her life: two children and eight grandchildren, a cheerfully decorated apartment and her deep-rooted Christian faith.

“I don’t complain because I’m blessed. I outlived my mother and father — they died in their 60s and I’m 74,” Smith says. “I just look up and say, ‘Thank you.’ Because I’m gonna make it.”

Barbara Smith is currently dealing with cuts to her Medicare and SNAP benefits. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)

Johnnie Mae Moody inspects the items on her shelf, dusting them off and repositioning them one by one: a plastic T-Rex, a glass swan, a statuette of a small child. Moody is an avid toy collector, and this shelf is her spacious apartment’s centerpiece.

Moody, 60, recounts a childhood during which she says police harassed her for her association with the Black P. Stones, a Chicago gang (founder Jeff Fort was an acquaintance). She was punished by teachers for being “slow” and struggled with her seven siblings to survive on her mother’s monthly Social Security check.

In 1991, Moody fled to Louisiana to escape an arrest warrant, picking fruit on the farm of a white police sergeant who paid her in cash. When she returned to Chicago in 1997, the charges against her had been dropped and she found work as a janitor in a Popeyes Louisiana Chicken.

Moody has developmental disabilities that prevent her from being able to read and write and receives a Supplemental Security Income check of roughly $733 a month. Although she has her hands full entertaining family members (she has four children and more than 15 grandchildren) and developing life goals with her social worker, she says she wants to return to work.

“I’m used to working,” she says. “I’m used to doing something instead of staying in the house all the time.”

But not all residents are in a rush to return to work. Charlotte Porter, 56, says her 30-year career at various Harold’s Chicken Shack restaurants in Chicago has left her exhausted. As a result of the fast-paced work environment and demanding hours, Porter says her body — especially her legs and back — can’t take any more stress. Despite ongoing financial pressures, she says it’s a blessing to live in the Yale building.

“You wouldn’t believe all of this was given to me,” Porter says, pointing to the matching furniture in her well-kept living room. “That’s how I know it was God that gave me this apartment.”

Before Porter secured a unit at Yale, she says she was on five different retirement home waiting lists. After visiting numerous facilities, Yale was her favorite. She has lived in the building for just two months but continues to revel in the atmosphere of peace and quiet, a pleasant change after living in a house with her son and 11 grandchildren.

“When I first came in the building I fell in love,” Porter says. “I loved the atmosphere. When [Felicia] called me, I knew it was God.”

Roger Shannon cooks extra-large meals in case other residents are hungry. (Carlos D. Williamson/MEDILL)

Shannon is always working to make life easier for his cohabitants in the Yale building. Since he is one of few tenants who drive, he makes a point of taking people to the store or anywhere else they need to go. And when he has a little extra money, he buys groceries or toiletries for others if they need it. He even does odd jobs around the building.

“You got elderly people that can’t do certain things,” Shannon says. “If I’m around, I try to help the [people] who are a little bit older than me. They try to hook their televisions up, so I do stuff like that to try to assist them.”

According to the Chicago Policy Research Team at the University of Chicago, Englewood is a food desert , commonly defined as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. For Yale residents — especially those who are mobility-impaired — this means walking to a nearby farmers’ market or another store that sells nutritious food isn’t an option. Without consistent transportation, residents aren’t able to shop for produce.

In an attempt to remedy the food shortage, Shannon says he cooks large meals so he has extra for anyone who’s hungry. It’s one of his favorite ways to help out around the building.

“I’ll make a large pot of spaghetti, not that my spaghetti is the best in city, but I’ll say, ‘Hey, are you hungry? I got some spaghetti,’” he says with a smile. “We help each other that way, too.”

Photo at top: Johnnie Mae Moody displays a shelf of her toy collection. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)