For almost two years Thomas Lee served on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. In May he got out of the army and came home to New Orleans. Two weeks ago his house was washed away. He came to Chicago and moved in with a relative, and then he became a pawn in a long-standing dispute between the CHA and housing activists over what’s left of public housing.

Lee, 27, and his 25-year-old sister, Jatawn Lee, and her 7-year-old son, Farrakhan, got drawn into the battle after members of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, a tenants group based in Cabrini, came up with what they called a “great idea.”

“We were seeing the news of all the homeless people in New Orleans and it was breaking our hearts,” says Deidre Brewster, a community organizer for the coalition. “We thought–why not use housing in the CHA?”

There’s no question that housing is desperately needed–over a million people have been left homeless by the hurricane and subsequent floods. Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, issued an SOS: he asked the “nation’s mayors and county officials” to “identify thousands of available homes to temporarily house displaced families.”

“Having a roof over your head is one of the most basic human needs,” said Jackson in a press release. “I can assure you that together with our local partners, we’re working overtime to make certain every available home will be offered to families who may have lost everything.”

As Brewster points out, there’s plenty of available housing under HUD’s control here in Chicago. “We have at least 2,000 vacant public housing units in Cabrini, Wentworth, Lathrop, and other CHA developments,” she says. “A lot of these units were recently vacated and they’re in pretty good shape. We have plenty of people willing to paint and do basic rehab. Governor Blagojevich and Mayor Daley say they want to help. Why not bring them here? It beats putting them on cots in the Astrodome.”

But CHA officials made it abundantly clear when they got wind of the coalition’s proposal that they’re not about to open them to people out of New Orleans or anyone else. The CHA plans to demolish many of those units.

Since 2000 Daley, the CHA, and HUD have been implementing their ambitious Plan for Transformation. They’ve already destroyed at least 13,000 units on the near west, south, and north sides. Meanwhile, the city’s been subsidizing the construction of mixed-income developments consisting of both market-rate condos and affordable apartments.

The Plan for Transformation, a ten-year, $15 billion effort, is one of Daley’s proudest accomplishments. CHA leaders and Daley have always been careful to wrap the plan in a cloak of benevolence, as though their primary interest were the welfare of low-income residents. It was, they’ve insisted, a mistake from the start to squeeze so many poor people into the same locations. Many projects quickly became uninhabitable and infested with gangs and drugs. The time had come to start over. The CHA has given most tenants a Section 8 certificate subsidizing their rent in privately owned housing or moved them to other CHA developments, promising to let them return once the mixed-income communities were completed.

But the plan also fortifies the city’s tax base by drawing middle- and upper-income people to previously poor communities. As a catalyst to development, it’s been an undeniable success, igniting a land rush in communities cleared of the poor. According to a recent analysis by the Chicago Reporter, the last five years have seen nearly $1.6 billion in residential property sales in the areas around the Robert Taylor, Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, Rockwell Gardens, Stateway Gardens, Ida B. Wells, and Madden Park housing projects–over $1 billion near Cabrini alone.

It’s not quite as clear how CHA tenants have benefited. Some have been given units in the new developments. But many more have simply moved to other poor communities. At Cabrini, the CHA has displaced 4,000 families, according to an analysis by the coalition. Six high-rises remain, as well as five mid-rises and 586 row houses, according to a count by Carol Steele, a Cabrini resident and coalition member. The CHA intends to demolish the high-rises and mid-rises. Originally, the CHA planned to demolish the row houses too, but the agency recently changed its mind and told residents these units will be remodeled over the next three years. In the meantime the CHA is clearing them by attrition, letting the units sit vacant as people move out. As residents move out, the CHA does not replace them. The coalition estimates that Cabrini has at least 180 vacant row houses. It is in these row houses–as well as in recently vacated units in Lathrop–that they propose to lodge people from New Orleans.

The coalition decided to hold a press conference at Cabrini to point out that some of the vacant housing was fit for habitation. They were confident that their friends among the CHA staff would let them into some of this housing. They even believed–with what in retrospect was immense naivete–that the CHA would look the other way as they moved in refugee families.

The CHA brass had a different idea. Press secretary Derek Hill found out about the coalition’s plan when I called him for comment. “We’re the landlords, they’re the residents,” Hill said indignantly. “They can’t do that–they have to come to us first.”

According to Hill, the CHA was responding to the needs of homeless people from New Orleans: it was taking senior citizens into its senior buildings. “The city’s taking care of families and single people,” he said. “Families looking for housing should go to the city–not the CHA.”

Thomas Lee and his sister and her son came to Chicago on September 3 and moved into the west-side apartment of his uncle and aunt, Rick and Marilyn Stone, former Cabrini residents. (Rick Stone is a friend of mine who’s collaborating with me on a fiction writing project.) When Rick Stone heard about the press conference he called Brewster to see if there might be housing available for the Lees. She was encouraging. “I really appreciate my uncle and aunt for taking us in,” says Thomas Lee. “But I thought we might be able to get some housing so we can give them back their room.”

At Brewster’s invitation, the Lees and Rick Stone showed up at Cabrini-Green the morning of September 9. They encountered a gaggle of activists, curious residents, and police, plus a small press corps that would certainly have been far bigger if the media had known that in addition to getting a look at some row houses they were going to meet a homeless Iraqi war vet from New Orleans.

A contingent of CHA officials was also there. Before the press conference started, Hill distributed copies of a statement for the press that dismissed the coalition’s proposal as “disrespectful to families who have suffered so much loss…. Given all that the hurricane evacuees have been through, placing them in units that HUD has deemed uninhabitable, and that continue to be challenged by the presence of gangs and drugs, is not an option.”

Brewster and other activists then stood on the sidewalk and made speeches that contradicted the CHA’s statement. They pointed out that the row house units were not slated for demolition, and they offered to show reporters the units to prove that they were fit to live in. Brewster asked Lee if he wanted to say a few words. Lee briefly told his story. He said he got out of the army in May and came home to New Orleans to study criminal justice at a local college. He said he’d tried to drive out of New Orleans just before the hurricane hit on August 28, but the roads were too crowded with evacuees. When the floods came, he abandoned his house and camped out in the lobby of a downtown hotel. On September 1 he drove to Atlanta to stay with an aunt. Two days later he drove to Chicago. (His sister and her son flew in from Texas the same day and met him here.)

He said he wanted to remain in Chicago–“There’s really no reason to go back to New Orleans”–provided he could find housing.

After Lee finished, Brewster led the press across the street to a row house at 871 N. Hudson. But they couldn’t get in. It was locked, and the brass did not intend to unlock it.

While Brewster and other activists tried to figure out what to do next, Lee stood on the corner holding Meann Stone, Rick Stone’s two-year-old granddaughter. Duwain Bailey, the CHA’s chief of operations, approached him. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but you can’t stay here,” Bailey said. He told Lee that the city’s Department of Human Services was running an emergency center for flood evacuees at Fosco Playground Park. “Go to 13th and Racine,” said Bailey. “They’re going through that process of taking care of people.”

By then it was close to noon, and most of the press had departed. Brewster announced that the activists had somehow located an unlocked vacant row house around the corner at 471 W. Oak. It was a two-bedroom unit with no furniture, but the water ran, the lights worked, and the toilet flushed. “This is great–I could move in right now,” Lee said.

The cops kept their distance as Brewster and Steele led Lee on a tour of the unit. But afterward, a CHA official had a word with the two coalition leaders, and they told Lee frankly what he’d said. “The CHA told us they would evict you if you move in,” Brewster said. “To them you’re a squatter.”

So the Lees returned to their uncle and aunt’s crowded west-side apartment, where they’d be sleeping on the floor. “It’s just pretty damn cold, sending them off like that,” said Brewster. “We’ve got all these CHA units, but all they want to do is tear them down.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.