Harry Williams (second from right) and Myron Byrd (third from right) confront Ald. Jason Ervin (left) | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

Around 50 to 60 members of the Bring Chicago Home coalition marched to the office of Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), located inside of the JLM Abundant Life Center, 2622 W. Jackson Blvd. in East Garfield Park, on July 18, urging him to lend his support to an ordinance that would create a dedicated funding stream for homeless prevention. 

For the past few years, the coalition, which is made up of affordable housing providers, social service organizations and labor unions, have been urging the city to raise the Real Estate Transfer Tax for properties worth more than $1 million in order to fund initiatives to tackle homelessness.  

The coalition has been trying to get support from all West Side aldermen, but they are particularly interested in getting Ervin’s support because he chairs the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, and they hope that his support would convince skeptical Black aldermen to join in. But Ervin previously declined to support the ordinance unless it also funds what he believes were more pressing priorities in his ward, namely violence prevention, workforce development and youth services.  

During the rally, activists argued that homelessness is one of the contributing factors to violence, and addressing it would reduce violence and some of the other issues affecting his ward. But Ervin remained unmoved, saying that, unless the ordinance includes funding for his priorities as well, he wouldn’t support it. The activists said that they are still going to try to persuade Ervin, saying that they harbor no ill will and are still willing to work with him.

Some of the things the tax revenue could fund would include the construction of more affordable housing, subsidizing rents, and providing mental health services and job placement assistance. According to state law, the tax rate can’t be increased unless the voters approve it by referendum. The coalition is supporting a Chicago City Council resolution to place the question on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The Bring Chicago Home ordinance currently has 18 co-sponsors, including Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th). It has support from several other members of the Black Caucus, as well.

The protesters approached the JLM Center at around 5 p.m. chanting, “Hey, Ervin, can you hear us, can you hear the human spirit,” and “Housing is a human right – Ervin, please do what’s right,” and asked the alderman to meet them. Ervin didn’t initially respond, so the activists made speeches at the center entrance.

Activist Harry Williams said that, as someone who used to be homeless, he knows first-hand that “violence, violence prevention and homelessness go hand-in-hand.”

 “You can’t separate the two,” he said

Amiin Musaddiq, an imam at Austin’s Masjid al-Mu’un mosque, 5607 W. Chicago Ave., appealed to Ervin directly.

“We are asking you to bring Chicago home, not with words, but with actions,” he said. “We are here today asking you, sincerely, with grace in our heart, that you bring forth the things that we need.

Mia Sostrin talked about how a difficult home situation led her to stay with friends on the West Side, where she saw first-hand the disparities the community faced, mentioning the lack of grocery stores. But she also described the cascading effects of not having a home to call her own had on her mental health.

“My grades suffered, my mental health suffered greatly,” Sostrin said.

About half an hour into the protest, the word got around that Ervin would meet the group at 6 p.m. The majority of the protesters went to the nearby Park 574, 2540 W. Jackson Blvd., to get some shade, only for Ervin to emerge a few minutes later.

As the protesters rushed back to the center, Ervin said that, while tackling homelessness was important, it wasn’t one of the top concerns he hears from his constituents.

“I’m not saying stopping homelessness is not important, but on the scale of things, that’s not high up on the ladder,” Ervin said.

He said that he would be in favor of the REIT increase that would fund his priority. Ervin suggested lowering the increase threshold to $500,000 transactions, so that broadening the scope wouldn’t affect how much funding would go to addressing homelessness.

“We need to expand the uses of the money and we need to lower the threshold, so we don’t take away any of your money,” he said. “When the legislation changes, I’ll be there. I’m open to working with people, but they have to be working with me.”

After some back and forth, it became clear that Ervin wouldn’t be moved on this, and protesters left.

In the interview after the meeting, activist Myron Byrd, who grew up in Austin and has been homeless in the past, said that the coalition planned to keep at it, since, given Ervin’s position in the Black Caucus, “he’s going to help drive it.

“With him, we’re going to continue to keep pushing for him to co-sponsor us,” he said. “We want to work with him, bring Chicago home and bring [the funding] to the community, because community is lacking. Now is the time.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...