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October 28, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

I’ve moved!

I’m a big girl now and I’ve move my site to I’ll be phasing out this site, so check the new one for updated info.

Thanks for finding me!

September 15, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

Safe sex a priority in the shelter

A version of this story appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Homeless Voice. It is a product of the Society of Professional Journalists Will Write for Food program.

All three times Chris and Dana have had sex at COSAC Homeless Shelter in Hollywood, Fla., she’s asked him not to use a condom. And he hasn’t.

For shelter founder and director Sean Cononie, this is a big problem.

He called the couple, who have been dating for about two weeks, into his office Saturday night to talk. Cononie’s concerned about the spread of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV, in his shelter and among people he considers family.

“Would you stick your penis in a meat grinder?” Cononie asks Chris, an olive-skinned man with his name tattooed in script on his neck.

“No,” Chris, 37, says.


“Because it’s dangerous.”

“There you go!” says Cononie, who then sent a shelter employee to buy a pack of condoms.

Like any good dad, Cononie likes to know what’s going on under his roof, where he is landlord to about 300 homeless residents.

“If you catch HIV and die, how do you think we’re going to feel?” he says to Chris, as shelter employees nod in agreement. “We love you.”

COSAC takes in residents who are denied access to the government shelter, because of drugs, sex or unwillingness to follow rules.

Chris is bipolar and has been a fixture in the shelter since 1998. He’s competent, but he’s slow to understand the consequences of his decisions, Cononie said.

And he’s also a lady’s man who has had many girlfriends since living there.

Cononie hasn’t outlawed sex in the shelter. Some couples share a room, and he doesn’t mind people hooking up. He only asks for safety and discretion. Sometimes he catches residents having sex in common areas and reprimands them, especially if they’re doing it without a condom.

“They need to be loved, held, caressed, whatever” even if they’re homeless, he said.

But he doesn’t let outsiders up to resident rooms for sex. They have to go elsewhere. He hears the golf course is a popular location.

Safety is the ultimate issue.

Once a resident performed unprotected oral sex on an openly HIV-positive resident, in exchange for 45 cents that he needed to buy a soda.

“I went berserk. I just couldn’t believe it,” Cononie said. “I was screaming, ‘How could you do this? Why didn’t you just ask me for 45 cents?’”

Chris’ girlfriend, Dana, is a short-haired 27-year old with tattoos on each bicep. She’s only been at the shelter for about a month, and the staff is unsure of her past.

Dana’s also causing problems; she doesn’t get up in time for her shift to sell newspapers in the morning and she argues with the staff.

“She has that whole ghetto attitude,” said Shawn Pitts, head of security for the shelter. “She thinks she knows what’s best for her.”

Pitts and others worry Dana’s trying to get pregnant for money, but she already has a 7-year-old who was taken away from her by the state.

Cononie also doesn’t know her HIV status. Sometimes people try to spread the virus because they feel victimized, he said.

A former HIV-positive resident slept around without telling his partners about the virus. In response, Cononie had a T-shirt made that read “HIV positive.”

“I told him if you’re staying here, you have to wear this shirt,” Cononie said. “He chose to leave. [He] said, ‘That’s their problem if they don’t ask.’”

Florida is one of 34 states that has convicted HIV-positive individuals for purposefully exposing an unknowing sexual partner to the disease.

Homeless people in the United States are more than eight times as likely to be infected with HIV than other Americans, according to a 2006 study from The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Sexually transmitted infections like hepatitis are also more common. Dirty and unstable living conditions, poor hygiene and drug use all contribute to high incidences of illness among the homeless.

Cononie often sends residents to local hospitals for STI diagnosis or treatment. Doctors and nurse practitioners also visit weekly to address residents’ medical issues.

After the meeting, it seems Chris has thought more about his relationship with Dana. She yelled and slammed doors after the intervention, which really turned him off.

“If she doesn’t change her attitude, I’m not gonna want to talk to her,” Chris said. He also is worried she’s trying to get pregnant, and he isn’t prepared to have a child.

Whether with Dana in the future or not, Chris plans on getting tested for HIV and other infections later this week.

And he promised he’d start using his new condoms.

September 2, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

La Casa housing project offers hope to Latino college students, Pilsen community

Construction begins at La Casa

“Look to your left and right. One of you won’t be graduating. Most of you will end up dead, pregnant or dropping out.”

Monica Lepe was in a room full of freshmen like herself at Benito Juarez Community Academy when her principal announced this the first day of school.

“Wow. That right there said a lot,” said Lepe, 20, who remembers that moment every day she walks through the neighborhood where she was born and raised. “I remember looking to the left and right, and both of those people did not graduate.”

Lepe graduated and is now studying at Malcolm X College, but she says she doesn’t know where most of her freshman class ended up. “Some of those people are dead.”

What with Juarez having three times the state’s drop-out rate, Lepe said she expected resources and encouragement to help overcome the trend. What she remembers is getting a free pass to continue business as usual.

It’s a problem The Resurrection Project homed in on: Not enough students are achieving in high school and going on to college, leaving a dearth of knowledge in primarily Hispanic Pilsen.

Without role models to pave the way, Lepe worries for the neighborhood’s future.

The Resurrection Project (TRP), a Pilsen-based organization focused on education, affordable housing and community development, has hatched a possible solution. They are developing La Casa: a college dormitory that will allow students in the community to study, volunteer in the neighborhood, and, above all, be role models for one another in a place that has seen its sons and daughters lost to gang violence and drugs.

Now, 10 years after announcing the concept, the idea is becoming a reality. TRP just broke ground on the $11.2 million dorm at the corner of Paulina and 18th Streets, mere steps from the CTA’s Pink Line rapid transit.

The first students are slated to move in at the start of the fall 2012 semester.

“We aren’t building the leadership to improve the quality of life of Pilsen,” said Alex Morales, the project manager at TRP overseeing La Casa.

About 35 percent of Chicago Latinos drop out of high school and less than 9 percent of those who graduate obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to TRP’s market research.  If they make it this far, they tend to move away from their home neighborhoods.

“The traditional thing that happens is, they get accepted, go away to school and no one ever sees them again,” said Gabriela Arismendi, La Casa’s program development manager.

La Casa may be the country’s first community-based student housing development, but TRP is not unfamiliar with real estate ventures.

The organization began in 1990 with seed money from area churches to buy abandoned lots in Pilsen and build affordable homes for families. Since then, about 274 affordable apartments and more than a hundred single family homes have been built throughout Pilsen, Little Village, Douglas Park and Back of the Yards. Casa Maravilla, a residential complex for seniors 55-years old and older opened May 2010.

The majority of La Casa’s funding comes from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which gave TRP an $8.4 million grant for the project. The organization also won a $68,000 award from the Chase Community Giving campaign. Other grants came from the Field and Polk Bros. Foundations, among others.

In addition to attending a nearby university, the La Casa students will be able to take advantage of TRP’s network of community-based organizations for jobs and internships. This will let them supplement their education and provide them with a stipend and work experience.

La Casa, comprising two buildings, will house 105 students. Living space, a lounge, classrooms, meeting rooms, a computer lab and fitness center are all part of the plan.

Instituto del Progresso Latino, a developmental and educational organization for Hispanics, will have a satellite office in the building to help provide both the students and the community with resources for finishing high school, finding financial aid and preparing for college.

For $700 per month, students will be able to live in a double room at La Casa. That may sound like a lot for a working-class Hispanic teenager, but TRP also has obtained the support of several area universities that will allow students to use their financial aid to pay for room and board there.

Already the University of Chicago, Robert Morris University, Dominican University and DePaul University have sent letters of support to TRP, giving their stamp of approval on a project they say is desperately needed. National Louis University, Northeastern University, St. Augustine College, University of Illinois at Chicago and Roosevelt University also have given their blessing.

Saint Xavier University, Columbia College and Loyola University have yet to offer the same, but Arismendi said it’s less for lack of support for the project and more because the groups have not yet found time to meet to discuss it.

But the plan isn’t for any of the schools to financially support the venture directly. It’s still unclear what kind of involvement the schools will have in terms of support staff or programming.

La Casa also offers a place for students to study without the demands of family or overcrowded housing.

Morales says that the average Hispanic college student might be studying for the next day’s test at 2 a.m. in their family’s bathroom simply because it’s the only place they can find the space and quiet.

“When I was a kid, my grandma was always there, grandpa, a couple of uncles. The house was always busy all the time,” said Morales. “Most of the time I had to go to the local library. If it had existed in my community 20 years ago, I would have gone to La Casa to help me achieve a little better than I did.”

Morales’ situation is typical, said Rob Paral, a Chicago demographic consultant.

“Generally speaking, Mexican households have more people per household, and generally speaking they have more overcrowded housing conditions,” he said. “The best they can buy is something that isn’t as good as someone with more money can buy.”

Pilsen historically has had an urban, gritty feel along with low-priced housing, Paral said. Little wonder it became a portal for Mexican immigrants to settle in the city.

The first wave of Mexicans was mostly young men who came to Chicago during World War I to work in steel mills, factories and meatpacking plants. By the 1930s, Chicago was one of the country’s largest destinations for Latinos moving north. Many were still strongly connected to Mexican culture and found communities of immigrants on the city’s near west and south sides.

In the 1940s, the railroad industry brought more Mexicans across the border to Chicago. A 1965 loosening of immigration laws allowed still more to come in search of  low-paying service jobs available in restaurants or landscaping. Increasingly, immigrants have come directly to this area because of its established Latino population both in the city and suburbs.

In Chicago, whites and blacks each make up 32 percent of the city’s population, and Hispanics make up 29 percent, according to 2010 Census data. The city’s Mexican population is second only to Los Angeles in size.

At nearly 16 percent of the state’s population, Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the largest minority in Illinois. Nationwide, the Latino population has more than doubled its size since 2000 in at least a quarter of the country’s counties.

With so many Latinos in Chicago, Paral sees them as the keystone to the city’s future.

Latino families typically have more kids than their white counterparts. Immigrants are also younger. The Latino population is growing, but the white and black populations in the area are flat or declining. Educated people, more often white, are also more mobile, while Latinos are less likely to be born here and move away, he said.

All of this adds up to a larger college-aged group of Latinos than the city has ever seen.

Lepe is among those dealing with the trend. She helped launch an after school program, the STARS Project, in October, that pairs high-achieving high schoolers with elementary students. The main focus is math and science tutoring, but the interaction and mentoring are also important, she said.

“We don’t want them to go in the same footsteps their parents were. I don’t want it to be like that. I’mwilling to volunteer and do stuff like this,” she said. Her own father didn’t make it past the second grade, and she is the first in her family to attend college.

She knows the future is right in her backyard. And, like TRP, she knows it starts with education.

“If you care about the city and want it to be a healthy place, you absolutely have to be very on top of the fortunes of the Latino community,” Paral said. “You want Latinos to do well if you care about Chicago.”

August 19, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

Customer service through social media

Have you ever tried to get in touch with someone via email, and they just refuse to answer you?

I was running into this problem a little bit with a bakery I was hoping to work with for my upcoming wedding. I initially contacted them to see what they offered. I got a response a few days later (which, to someone who nearly always responds to emails within 24 hours, seemed like a lifetime). Last week I shot them another email wanting to finalize an order. No response. This week I sent another email. No response. I was getting anxious – wedding planning has been stressful, and I wanted to get things nailed down. I even went to the bakery’s brick and mortar location and was told I needed to contact the person via email (the same one I’d already been trying to reach).

Yesterday I was on the bakery’s Facebook page when I noticed its Twitter feed. Though my emails were going unreturned, I saw that tweets were posted multiple times per day – one even within the last two hours. I quickly sent them a tweet:





Later that day, I got a call about my order. Success! Feel the power of social media! Maybe this was the best way to get their attention. Or maybe they were worried a potential customer would see they hadn’t responded to me. Either way, I was pleased as punch. And I know my guests will be too when they taste these pies – YUM.

I’ve found Twitter is a great way to connect with companies and get a quick response without waiting on hold with a 1-800 number. I’ve contacted both TOMS Shoes and BlackBerry to ask a question or for help with something, and it’s been very effective. I salute you, companies of Twitter, for embracing a new medium!

July 27, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

Northerly Island plan “awesome” but at what cost?

Downtown Chicago and Burnham Harbor as seen from Northerly Island.

“We don’t want to be Millennium Park.”

Gia Biagi, the Chicago Park District’s planning director, got that point across Tuesday night as she led a group through the grassy fields on Northerly Island.

She was referring to Millennium’s original  $150 million budget that, in the end, topped $475 million. Perhaps that’s one reason why not even a tentative budget has been set for the new Northerly Island Park.

“A lot,” was all  Biagi would say of the ultimate cost. And who could blame her – the city is already facing a more than $600 million budget shortfall for 2012.

“We have no illusions that we can do this in one full stroke,” Biagi said. “It’s a phase plan” easily taking up to 10 years. The city is still in the bid process for the new concert venue that will replace the Charter One Pavilion at the peninsula’s north end,  part of the first stage of Northerly’s transformation.

Biagi was at Northerly  Tuesday evening to explain the city’s plan for the 91-acre peninsula to a group of about 50 members of Lambda Alpha International, a group interested in land economics.

The park district unveiled a consulting team’s ideas in December, about seven years after Mayor Daley razed the Meigs Field runway in 2003.

Renderings call for a multiple ecosphere park that will allow for year-round recreation and be an outdoor classroom in conjunction with the three nearby museums. Plans include the construction of a barrier reef in Lake Michigan east of the peninsula to create a deep-water lagoon for diving, swimming and fishing.

“That’s what we really heard from folks—they want to interact with the water,” said Biagi. “There’s a really big constituency for canoe and kayak.”

There is a green, eco-friendly edge to the proposed plan, including using wave and geothermal power for electricity. Planners from JJR and Studio/Gang Architects also call for a sanctuary for the migratory birds that otherwise might fly into the sides of the city’s high-rises.

Despite the potentially astronomical pricetag, most of the tour group seemed impressed and enlivened by the plan.

Gary Foyle, a project manager with an engineering and architectural design firm downtown, said that before the tour, he wasn’t a fan. He remembered being angry when Daley destroyed Meigs, but after hearing about the project, he’s changed his mind.

“I think it’s awesome, especially given where it is on the lakefront,” he said. “It’s an investment just like Millennium Park” that will add needed amenities for both residents and tourists.

The chance to reclaim the space for all residents, and not just those who could afford private planes, struck Luann Hamilton, of Peterson Woods, who works for the Chicago Department of Transportation

“(The airport’s) time is gone and the momentum is in the other direction,” she said. “I just hope there’s federal funding for stuff like this.”

Hamilton added that she doesn’t think many residents know they already have use of Northerly. She and her family came to hike in the fall and no one else was there.

Joan Berry, who works for an engineering firm, agreed, saying that the city needs to do more to drum up awareness and support of the project.

“I’m always in favor of preserving the lakefront,” she said. “It’s really one of the important things that makes Chicago what it is.”

July 18, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

How to cover suicide (via the Dart Center)

There was a great post today about covering suicide from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma out of the Columbia Journalism School.

It’s an issue I’ve raised in classrooms and newsrooms: Suicide is a serious public health issue, yet we often look at our feet and wait for the moment to pass without a word being said.

My former ethics professor, Edward Wasserman (Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University) talked about the issue in one of his columns for the Miami Herald, and it’s something we debated in class as well.

Most news organizations won’t touch suicide, and if they do, only if the victim is in the national spotlight or the attempt was in public. But in doing so we marginalize the others who have fallen to the same fate. Any time a member of our community is dramatically or violently taken from us, it is news and should be ethically and sensitively reported.

The article has some good tips about reporting on suicides in a way that raises awareness without inciting copycats or re-victimizing families. Here’s a few I really liked:

  • Include a sidebar with warning signs for depression or resources for getting help.
  • Don’t say the suicide came out of nowhere or was prompted by a single incident, like losing a job – depression exhibits warning signs, and the single cause oversimplifies the victim’s struggle.
  • Inform without sensationalizing (don’t refer to “skyrocketing” suicide rates or graphic crime scenes).
  • Use facts and an expert to educate your audience about depression and suicide.
July 1, 2011 / stephaniehardiman

Weather forecast wrong, people angry

I was once told in a television news class I took as an undergrad that the number one reason people watch the local nightly news is this: the weather.

My fiance’s mother is one of these people. Each night she turns on the local NBC affiliate, promptly takes a 40 minute cat-nap and has someone awake her to hear the next day’s temperature.

Today angry tweeters took to the Internet to proclaim their dismay that popular Chicago weather guy Tom Skilling got today’s nearly 100 degree forecast wrong. It was barely 75 degrees at 2 p.m.
Here’s a nice shot of what it looked like today via a tumblr user:

Tom Skilling became a trending topic on Twitter in Chicago as people voiced their anger at the incorrect forecast. Not much mention of other meteorologists:
RedEye gave its take here.

Fact errors? Small potatoes. Just don’t get our weather wrong!