Jacqueline Hayes’ Mission to Help the Homeless on The Magnificent Mile

    Jacqueline Hayes didn’t set out to rewrite the Bible, but in serving thousands of free meals to people in need, over the past two decades, she has brought a new spin to one of its most famous stories—the good Samaritan who came to the aid of someone suffering at the side of the road.

    In place of the dusty thoroughfare between Jerusalem and Jericho, in Jesus’s parable, her rescue zone has been one of Chicago’s most fashionable avenues, the city’s iconic “Magnificent Mile.” And rather than the unlikely outsider who stopped to help and gave the name to the original story, she’s more like one of the two other characters in the story.

    They were the first passersby who ignored the robbery victim and kept on moving—but in her new version, Hayes then turned around and went back to help. In doing so, she has become an inspiration to countless others who have followed her example and chosen to stop and lend a hand.

    It all started back in late November 1999, when some of Chicago’s homeless were driven from their usual turf and found their way to upscale Michigan Avenue, where Hayes had a successful commercial real estate business.

    “They started coming and living in the doorways of some of the spaces I was leasing, and I kicked them out,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Get out of here, you’re going to hurt my business.’ And then I felt awful, I felt guilty—this is where they feel safe and I’m kicking them out of it.”

    Gathering local charities, organizations and residents, Hayes founded the Chicago Help Initiative (CHI), which has since grown into a multifaceted outreach. First was a feeding program, supported by local restaurateurs.

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    In time, she decided to survey recipients about the program, and stumbled onto another need. “The guys weren’t filling out the survey,” she explains. “And I said, ‘I thought we were buddies.’ And somebody said, ‘Oh, I can’t read.’” That epiphany led to a literacy program, helping people get their GED and a jobs club. CHI also runs an arts and culture program, taking groups to cultural and entertainment venues around the city.

    Deserving of respect
    “Just because you’re homeless and live in a shelter or something doesn’t mean that you’re dumb,” says Hayes. “Many of our guests are super-intelligent.” Before the coronavirus pandemic halted dine-in programs in favor of meals-in-a-bag distribution, piles of donated books were made available for people to take from the free lunch gatherings. “Some would take as many as five or six books from week to week. They were avid readers.”

    Note that Hayes calls those whom CHI helps “guests.” That’s deliberate. “That’s what they are,” she explains. “They’re human beings that deserve respect. And just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. When someone comes to your house for a meal, they’re a guest. And so they were coming to ‘my house’, if you will”—the first venue for free lunches was provided by the Catholic diocese she is part of—“and they were guests, there was no question about it.”

    Through the years, she has learned that homelessness is a much bigger and more complex issue than may be evident to someone who just glances at those out on the streets. One count tallied almost 80,000 such people in Chicago. “A lot,” she says. “Now, that doesn’t mean that all of them are really living on the street. Some of them are living in housing, or a shelter. Some of them are moving from one family member’s home to another… There are all kinds of variations.”

    One of her homeless friends lived in the subway. “He had a place and he was safe… he kept warm in the winter and chilled in the summer… and he is a person that needs help.” One CHI survey of “guests” found that:
    85% were unemployed.
    80% were men.
    65% were single.
    46% were homeless.
    20% were ex-military.

    Asking for help
    There are multiple reasons people end up on the streets, Hayes has learned: mental illness, unemployment, divorce, alcohol, drugs. Often some combination of factors. “There’s any possibility.” One “buddy” who now helps at CHI was a general manager of a major retail store on Michigan Avenue who turned to drink when his wife died and “just lost it all.”

    Once you have fallen hard like that, it can be hard to get back on your feet. Hayes laments the lack of caring services that are available, meaning people don’t get the help they need. That failure comes with a high cost—not only for those in need, but for society as a whole. Hayes references a study that found that one homeless man’s frequent ER visits had tallied up to close to $1 million—more than it would have cost to provide him with accommodation and support.

    The single biggest lesson Hayes has learned through her varied experiences is to never be afraid to ask anybody for anything. “I’ve asked people for jobs,” she says, “I’ve asked people for help, advice.” If she goes to a restaurant and is asked how she liked the food, she will tell them she loved it—and then ask whether they would provide a meal for her homeless friends.

    “I’m never afraid to ask anybody for anything, and I highly recommend that be part of anyone’s philosophy. All anybody can do is say no, and that is not necessarily a hundred percent. No, it’s a temporary no, it’s a no for that moment—you can go back again and ask them again.”

    Preparing the way
    Hayes’ quietly determined streak was etched by her own background. She did not go to college until she was 30, then starting out as a legal secretary and becoming an assistant office manager. Later, as the office manager for Morse Diesel, she found herself in the thick of controversy over the building of the Sears Tower, when the construction company was picketed in a campaign to win jobs for minorities.

    “My boss had a very volatile temper,” Hayes recalls; he would go and start swearing at those picketing. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s going to end up in the papers,’ so he would send me out. And so I’d go and talk with them and I’d go back and report.”

    Moving on again, Hayes found herself managing a million-square-foot building for a time, before turning to real estate. She started her own business in 1983 and began leasing on Michigan Avenue because it was close to where she lived and she did not drive. “Not the right reason to make that decision,” she notes, but it has worked out well—for her, and many others she unexpectedly came across.

    “I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve been very important to me in my life,” she says. “What I’m doing today is so meaningful as far as helping those that need help, and I think that some of the other experiences I had along the way have made me ready to do this.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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