Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) talks with Of Color board member Angela Whiteside-Smith Esq., an attorney from Orland Park, about why she got involved with the non-profit. (Photos by Dermot Connolly)

Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) talks with Of Color board member Angela Whiteside-Smith Esq., an attorney from Orland Park, about why she got involved with the non-profit. (Photos by Dermot Connolly)

Casten visits agency that aids homeless veterans

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Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) is joined by Of Color founding executive director Renita White (center) and board member Angela Whiteside-Smith Esq. of Orland Park, to watch a video describing the work of the non-profit, which helps homeless veterans and others find housing and employment.

By Dermot Connolly

Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) recently paid a visit to In Color, a non-profit in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood in his newly redrawn district, which received a $466,406 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Labor that will go toward assisting homeless veterans in need of shelter and jobs.

“Our background is housing and workforce development,” explained executive director Renita White, a qualified social worker who founded the woman-led social services agency at 2033 W. 95th St. in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We started out as workforce development,” she said, explaining that after working for government agencies, her goal was to provide services “more grounded in the community.”

In addition to helping veterans without housing, the non-profit agency also offers youth employment programs for people between 18 and 24, rapid rehousing for people in crisis, and various other community programming.

Casten said he did not have a hand in providing the new Department of Labor grant, since it was applied for before his district boundaries included the site, but he offered to help the agency “any way we can” going forward, especially if payment is not being received in a timely manner on the federal level.

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Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) and Of Color founding executive director Renita White (center) chat with client Imani Lackey, who got job-training there. She is holding a certificate she received for qualifying as an electrical line worker. 

“Because I am on the Financial Services Committee, we can make some good trouble,” said Casten, paraphrasing a famous line by the late civil rights activist John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia.

White said that the federal government actually issue prompt payments, as opposed to the state government.

“We’re really proud of getting this (Department of Labor) grant. We are newbies on the scene, and we want to get our name out there,”

The founder noted that while the grant is large, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded the agency a $4.4 million grant, for a three-year contract to provide housing for people in need.

She explained to Casten that the agency does not own any property, but works with owners of rental property to find the right housing for clients.

“We are really picky about who we do business with (as landlords),” said White.

“We believe in scattered-site housing, and that people should be able to live where they want to and hold their own leases.”

“One of the things we focus on is economic sustainability,” she continued, explaining that the agency teaches homeless veterans and others from troubled backgrounds how manage their finances and maintain their homes when they get them.

Since opening their doors in 2020, the agency has successfully assisted more than 800 clients to get back on their feet.

Citing one of many success stories, White told of a homeless man who walked to the agency from Evergreen Park, more than a mile west on 95th Street, to seek help.

“We told him that if he does everything we say, we will get you not only housing but a job,” said White. “He came back to show us the keys to his new place, and he was able to get his wife out of a shelter too.”

“We find people in need by working with local partners, like the Veterans Administration and others,” said Keisha Norris, director of housing and workforce development.

She noted that the agency also works with employers in the public and private sector, including public schools, hospitals, and companies such as Walgreens, to match clients with the right jobs too.

“Our young population, 18-24 years old, are our future so we have to invest in them,” said White.

“We put them in workplace learning, so they can get hands-on experience in the industry they think they want to work in. We have had kids to go on to college. I am a big proponent of that,” said White.

One of those young people is Imani Lackey, who stopped in to the agency during Casten’s tour to pick up the certificate of achievement she received for completing training at Dawson Technical Institute at Kennedy-King College to be an electrical wire worker.

She recently completed an internship with ComEd and is working for UPS while looking for a job in construction.

“I just want to keep busy and keep improving,” she said.

Casten asked how many clients come in without a government-issued picture ID, noting that he sponsored a bill that would allow anyone who wants one to get a such an ID at no cost.

The goal was to eliminate a barrier to voting, but the women said it would help their clients as well.

“II would say about 20 percent of veterans don’t have an ID, but as many as two-thirds of the young people we serve don’t have a valid picture ID. It is a huge barrier for our youth,” said White.

She and Casten agreed that homeless veterans should not be pitted against the migrants coming from Latin America seeking housing and jobs.

“We have a way more need for housing than we have housing. However, you end up being unhoused, we have a moral obligation to help. I think there is a danger in to try to break people into subsets,” said Casten.

“Before those folks got here, we had a lack of affordable housing,” he added.

“Tere is enough to go around for everyone, and in some ways, we are all immigrants,” said White, noting that her agency has provided care packages to migrants as well.

“I think we could do a much better job of getting them opportunities to work while they are here, waiting for their court cases,” said Casten.

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Cong. Sean Casten (D-6th) visited Of Color Inc., a non-profit agency at 2033 W. 95th St., on August 16 to discuss how the agency helps homeless veterans and young adults find employment and housing. With him, from left, are founding executive director Renita White; Keisha Norris, director of housing and workforce; and Ladon Brumfield, training and financial literacy manager.

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