As the polar vortex was bearing down on Chicago this past January, Candice Payne was planning to cocoon through the vicious cold snap with her laptop and her miniature Pomeranian, Fendi, at her home in suburban Hazel Crest. Then the real estate broker and rehabber thought about Tent City, the homeless encampment on the side of the Dan Ryan Expressway that she passes every day on her way to work. “People there will be sleeping on ice,” she remembers thinking. “This could kill someone.” So she made a spur-of-the-moment decision: She’d charge some hotel rooms on her Amex card and move a few people out of the cold. She figured she could afford 15 or 20 rooms for two days.
At first, Payne’s efforts stalled. Hotel managers told her housing the homeless would be bad for business. Finally, the Amber Inn, a motel in Bronzeville, agreed to rent her rooms. Payne posted to Instagram, asking for anyone with a van or SUV to help shuttle people to the motel, and then headed to Tent City. While she stood by a scrap-wood fire passing out motel keys, Payne’s post was going viral. “The tips of my fingers were numb, the air was crackling inside my lungs,” she says. “And then my phone exploded” — texts, emails, social media shares, and voicemails from people offering to help. Livery services wanted to donate their drivers. Churches offered their buses. Volunteers showed up with their cars. The Amber Inn was deluged with calls from strangers paying for more rooms.
In the end, Payne and her impromptu army moved 122 people into 70 rooms for five days of relief from the devastating freeze. “That first morning, I went to McDonald’s and said, ‘For real, give me 122 Egg McMuffins and 122 hash browns.’ ” She also made two runs to Walmart, one for toiletries and vitamins, and then one to help a woman who told Payne she’d lost her bra.
At first, Payne shied away from publicity, but when rumors started flying around town about who was behind the effort — was it Chance the Rapper? Oprah? — Payne decided to come forward. Within a week, she’d made an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where she received two $25,000 checks from Walmart. She has plowed that money into a nonprofit she created, Action for a Cause, which is working with local social services to provide housing for people transitioning off the streets.
All the attention was a bit of a shock, but she doesn’t regret stepping forward. “It’s important to show that you don’t have to be rich or famous to help others. If a working black woman who grew up in Auburn Gresham can do something, so can you.”