Longtime community activist in Aurora another victim of housing crisis – Chicago Tribune
Mary Fultz isn’t the kind of person who asks for help, unless it’s for someone else.
In fact, the 56-year-old Aurora woman has been on the front line in this city’s ongoing efforts to make its neighborhoods safer and policies more equitable for minority residents.
For those who don’t recall the many times in the past 15 years this newspaper has covered her efforts as a community activist, let me provide a short summary.
In 2006, Fultz founded Community Advocacy Awareness Network that has sponsored events such as unity dinners, fundraisers for children of murder victims, summer kids programs, health fairs, bookmobiles, food banks and legal education, to name a few.
She’s also hosted a series of neighborhood meetings, conducted surveys, organized protests and vigils, met with community leaders and has petitioned City Council on numerous occasions in her quest to provide a voice for those often not heard, including homeless veterans.
Fultz became so involved in social service work after surviving a serious bout with cervical cancer in 2001 that led to “a promise to God” she would dedicate her life to helping others.
Right now, she’s getting more than a few calls from people struggling to find places to live. It’s here that I need to mention the point of this column: Mary Fultz is currently homeless herself.
It’s a tough realization that hit her not that long ago when she had to sleep in her car after being accidentally locked out of one of the houses where she’s been couch surfing since losing the place she called home for 14 years, all because the landlord had to sell the property due to his own financial situation.
“Trust me, I get what financial struggles landlords have gone through,” she said, referring to the many people not paying rent during the pandemic because of eviction moratoriums and financial hardships. “Landlords are in a tough spot as well.”
As director of housing and supportive services for Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora, Karen Whitney sees cases like Fultz more than ever now because affordable housing, not exactly abundant even before COVID-19, has become even more scarce.
Not only is rent about 33% higher, property owners are demanding higher credit scores as well as three times the amount of income-to-rent ratio, which means a person would have to be making $3,000 a month for $1,000 in rent, Whitney pointed out.
Landlords, she added, are not willing to waive the higher criteria for those on Section 8 vouchers, which is making it even harder for low-income residents who have been displaced because of the pandemic.
Whitney worked many years with Fultz, who has volunteered on her own and with her advocacy group serving meals at the Aurora shelter. So she was surprised when Fultz reached out to her last October, not as a volunteer but as a woman with a family desperate for a home.
Since then, Whitney and her staff have been trying to help Fultz find housing. And although “Mary’s come close a hundred times,” they have yet to to secure a lease.
“Every time I think I am going to get a place,” said Fultz, “I find out the paperwork isn’t processed quickly enough” and she loses out to another applicant.
“Fourteen years ago the subsidized programs seemed to help people. Nowadays it just doesn’t seem to be enough.”
In February and with options running out, Fultz had no choice but to go into the shelter. Because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the time, added Whitney, Fultz was put into a hotel, where she’s now been staying with the two teenage granddaughters she’s raising.
But time is running out – she has until the end of the month in the hotel – as is Fultz’s optimism and her patience.
“My hands are up in the air right now,” she told me a few days ago after more paperwork hiccups cost her a place she thought she’d been able to secure in Plainfield.
“Mary’s case is particularly compelling,” Whitney tells me, because she’d been a good tenant for 14 years and through no fault of her own had to move.
“If it happened to her it can can happen to a lot of people,” she says of Fultz, who has even applied for Section 8 housing in Houston, Texas, as well as in surrounding counties.
Whitney says she’s reached out to an agency specializing in this issue and is hoping it comes through for Fultz. In the meantime, this longtime community volunteer continues to get calls from people seeking her help, unaware she too is in a precarious position.
“I stand firm and try to help them through their situations as much as I possibly can,” Fultz admitted, only to get off the phone to shed tears of her own.
Still, even as she lies in bed at night worrying about her situation, Fultz tells me she is still “grateful” because she realizes there are people in the community worse off than she is.
Recently, while working with a group doing trash pick-up along Farnsworth Avenue, Fultz says her heart was touched by the appreciation of a homeless man who came upon what these volunteers were doing and wanted to donate a few dollars to the efforts.
Getting to know and assist this population over the years is actually helping her “cope,” she says. “I understand how it can bring on depression, hopelessness. But it also makes me want to fight harder” for those without shelter.
That, in turn, is what makes others just as determined to find a solution for Fultz.
“There is a load of people who need help, but there are certain people we think about all the time,” said Whitney. “Mary is such a good person. Something has got to give.”