[Hpn] Chicago, IL - Homeless advocate advanced cause of justice for the poor - Chicago Sun Times - November 24, 2003

HC Covington HC Covington" <hcc@icanamerica.org
Tue, 25 Nov 2003 01:23:14 -0500

Homeless advocate advanced cause of justice for the poor

BY Laura Washington - Chicago Sun Times - November 24, 2003

Chicago, IL - John Donahue was many things to many people,
but he was nobody's chump.

A big man with an outsized heart, this lifelong advocate
deployed his keen wit and strategic mind to advance the
cause of justice for the poor.

For more than 40 years until his sudden death from lung
cancer a week ago, Chicago's most effective community
organizer labored from Chicago to Central America to wipe
out homelessness, poverty and social injustice.

He was the son of a Chicago fireman, and his advocacy
bridged every ethnic and racial line. He was lovingly
nicknamed Juancho, but he spoke the universal language of
compassion for those who hang to the short end of life. Once
a Roman Catholic priest, he gave up the ministry 24 years
ago to marry Icela, who survives him, along with their five

Donahue continued to minister to his other family -- the
kick 'em to the curb people that society shuns. Indigents.
Panhandlers. Illegal immigrants. Public housing squatters.
Drug addicts.

But he was no bleeding heart, and he didn't make excuses for
his clients. I'll help you if you'll help yourselves, he
would say.

He had no use for the bureaucracy, unless it was working for
change. Donahue's "job" was executive director of the
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, but you rarely found him
riding a desk. More likely he would be commiserating with
the denizens of Lower Wacker Drive, or living with squatters
in Panama.

Donahue wasn't hung up on the niceties. To win more funding
for the poor, he once dumped manure near the mayor's home
and set up a soup line outside the governor's fancy

Like many other reporters in Chicago and around the nation,
I found him a primary source for wisdom on social justice
issues. When I heard of his passing I thought of the last
time, a few weeks ago, I thought, "I'll have to ask Juancho
about that."

One morning at the neighborhood Starbucks, I was lingering
over my newspaper and usual cup of green tea. I glanced up
in time to catch a tattered, dirty hulk of a man stride
purposefully through the door and make a beeline for the
bathroom. He had obviously been sleeping in the street. The
barista behind the coffee bar admonished, "No, you don't!
The washroom is for customers only!" The non-customer raised
his head, and with a look of pure grief, responded, "Yeah,
man, I know, but I have an emergency -- I'll just be a

The barista's "No!" was so fierce it literally blew the guy
back out the door. The gaggle of yuppies around me rolled
their eyes, took another sip, and went back to the

A typical urban scene. But then I recollected the times, in
that same Starbucks and in other places, I had watched
well-dressed, middle-class types seek such relief with nary
a protest from the powers that be. Cab and bus drivers run
in to use the john. Young professionals in tailored suits,
on a detour to the bus stop for a quick potty break, sans
coffee. On the way out, some even filch a newspaper from the
stand near the door. No one notices. Not a rolling eye in
the joint.

If you're toting a shiny briefcase, you are a "customer,"
deserving of a break. If you are pushing a raggedy shopping
cart, you are dirt on the street.

I never got a chance to ask Donahue about my ruminations.
But I can guess what he would have said: "Quit the armchair
philosophizing," he would have boomed. "Why didn't you get
up from that stuffed armchair and come to the man's defense?
Why didn't you reach into the fat purse and buy him a cup of
coffee? Or give him the bus fare to get him to a shelter?
Give him back his humanity, if only for a moment?"

The answers are in the questions.

To the end, Donahue demanded that we treat the poor as
"customers" of the world, as full human beings. If we don't,
we have no value, no matter how many cups of latte we can

Juancho would say, "I may be gone, but don't chump the poor.
I'll be watching."

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