Back to the Old Neighborhood: A Homeless Mother Wrangles with the City, February 1990

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When Jean Chappell attended her first tenants’ meeting at the Woodside Houses in Queens, she heard longtime residents lamenting the state of their home, and blaming the decline on formerly homeless families moving in to the community. A woman of strong shoulders and convictions, Chappell stood up and confronted them. “What makes you think it’s the homeless families? It’s not them,” she told her new neighbors. “I know because I’m one of the ones you’re talking about.”

Chappell and her family were homeless for almost three years before she secured a three-bedroom apartment through the New York City Housing Authority. The stereotyping of homeless people as lazy and slovenly grates on her. Chappell worked full-time while she and her two daughters shuffled from relatives’ homes to city shelters to welfare hotels. She had been the records room supervisor at a law firm, but after kicking her abusive husband out of the house, she had trouble making ends meet.

While a year-long resident at the infamous Brooklyn Arms Hotel–today, its former site is home to the new Mark Morris dance center–Chappell joined Parents on the Move, an advocacy group for poor families. She and her neighbors banded together, sheltering a stalking victim and caring for children whose parents were sick. They set up after-school programs at the nearby Salvation Army center, and arranged for a Brooklyn hospital to send doctors three times a week to treat hotel residents. When they heard the Brooklyn Arms was closing down, the tenants successfully lobbied the city for permanent housing. “We were awesome!” remembers Chappell.

“You had to be an extraordinary person to live in that hotel–which was one of the worst places to live–and keep your family intact, and on top of that to organize other people in the building to change the system,” says Ken Walters, director of management and technical assistance at United Neighborhood Houses, which advises groups working with homeless families. “Jean was in a class by herself.”

Through her advocacy work, Chappell met Rosa Parks, won a Martin Luther King Jr. award and landed a job at the Henry Street Settlement as a case manager helping homeless families become self-sufficient. “When you see people open up and blossom, holding themselves together with their heads up, that’s a good feeling,” says Chappell, who still works at Henry Street. “Whoever we advocate for, it doesn’t just benefit them–it benefits everybody.” At the settlement, among other things, Chappell helped set up a resource center to provide information on community-based services and trained homeless parents to advocate for their children’s education.

Verona Middleton-Jeter, chief administrator of homeless and transitional services for Henry Street, says Chappell is one of the settlement’s most effective organizers. “She can get a group together in a minute,” says Middleton-Jeter. “The fact that she was able to move through the system and succeed really encourages people to strive. She has a way of conveying hope.”

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