THE WOMAN WHO PRO­TECTED MANY HOME­LESS FROM THE PO­LAR VORTEX

Ef­forts of 34-year-old busi­ness­woman Candice Payne get­ting na­tional at­ten­tion — and dona­tions

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - MAUDLYNE IHE­JIRIKA,

So just who Candice Payne, the Chicagoan who rented ho­tel rooms for the home­less dur­ing the re­cent po­lar vortex?

Af­ter her self­less deed went vi­ral, it drew an on­slaught of vol­un­teers lo­cally and dona­tions na­tion­ally, lead­ing to last week’s ap­pear­ance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

There, she got a $50,000 gift from Wal­mart, which she turned around and do­nated to her non­profit, Ac­tion For A Cause Now.

A hum­ble and suc­cess­ful 34-year-old busi­ness­woman, Payne’s life has been for­ever changed by what be­gan as worry for those out­side dur­ing a spell pre­dicted to bring the most frigid Chicago tem­per­a­tures seen in decades.

“Those five days gave me a new pur­pose,” she said in a re­cent chat.

“For five days, my life, my heart, was there with the home­less. For them to share their sto­ries with me, to lis­ten to them, cry with them, un­der­stand there are so many dif­fer­ent rea­sons for why they’re where they’re at. I re­al­ized that was just a tem­po­rary fix.”

Payne started Ac­tion For A Cause Now two years ago but hadn’t de­cided what to do with it. Now, she’s de­cided to fo­cus on help­ing the home­less. She started a Gofundme page that has brought in about $25,000. Be­sides build­ing multi-unit hous­ing for the home­less, it also will join a trend by cre­at­ing night shel­ters for the home­less out of ship­ping con­tain­ers.

“I didn’t do this for any rea­son other than to help, but I’m glad it’s raised aware­ness and gives me a plat­form to help the home­less on a larger scale,” she said.

Chicagoans co­cooned dur­ing the vortex that brought tem­per­a­tures un­der 20 de­grees be­low zero on Jan. 30-31. Then word spread of the ef­forts of a good Sa­mar­i­tan to shel­ter the home­less at the Am­ber Inn on the South Side, the only ho­tel that would take them.

Payne ini­tially was leery of the spot­light. But when folks started spec­u­lat­ing it was some wealthy or fa­mous bene­fac­tor rent­ing ho­tel rooms and driv­ing all over town pick­ing up home­less, she felt it im­por­tant to let people know it was a reg­u­lar per­son, or as she says, “a work­ing black woman.”

“It was go­ing to be way too cold that Wed­nes­day, so I told my em­ploy­ees not to come in to work. I’d planned to stay in bed, watch­ing TV and on my lap­top. Then I started think­ing, ‘Man, what about the people who don’t have any­where to go to­mor­row night?

“I in­stantly said, ‘I’m go­ing to put 20 ho­tel rooms on my Amer­i­can Ex­press card,’” Payne re­counts.

Her ef­forts, ap­plauded by the likes of Hil­lary Clin­ton, Jada Pin­kett Smith and Com­mon, po­ten­tially saved lives, as ex­perts say such cold spells are most lethal for the home­less — time spent in sub­zero tem­per­a­tures can cause death in un­der 24 hours.

Payne ul­ti­mately got 122 home­less people off the street, per­son­ally pay­ing for 30 rooms, and rais­ing more than $23,000 through so­cial me­dia pleas. It all cov­ered 72 ho­tel rooms for five nights. Vol­un­teers and donors joined her to pro­vide meals and toi­letries.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” she said of the feat that trig­gered re­quests for TV ap­pear­ances not only from Ellen DeGeneres but “Steve Har­vey” and “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica.”

“I chose Ellen over the oth­ers, be­cause I love Ellen,” Payne said.

Payne lives in Hazel Crest but grew up in Auburn Gre­sham, the youngest of four chil­dren and only daugh­ter of her father, a South Side hair­styl­ist, and her late mother, who died in 2013.

A grad­u­ate of Chicago Pub­lic Schools’ Lind­blom Math & Sci­ence Academy, she ob­tained her as­so­ciate’s de­gree in busi­ness from City Col­leges of Chicago and bought her first build­ing at age 20. It was a bad in­vest­ment. At 23, she had to file for bank­ruptcy.

Payne then en­rolled in real es­tate school, got her li­cense and re­paired her credit. In 2011, she bought another build­ing and quit her Com­cast job of eight years to fo­cus on real es­tate.

“I’ve al­ways had a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur spirit. Dur­ing those eight years, I’d started all dif­fer­ent types of busi­nesses,” she said. “It wasn’t un­til I met the leg­endary Ja­cob da Builder, who in­spired me to do fix and flips, that I found what works for me.”

Her suc­cess at re­hab­bing homes last year won her the Cook County Land Bank Au­thor­ity’s Project of the Year Award.

Af­ter work­ing a few years with other firms, she opened her own bro­ker­age in 2016, 5th Group Realty in the South Loop. In De­cem­ber, she opened a sec­ond busi­ness, Body Werks Spa in Bronzeville.

Payne has a sig­nif­i­cant other and con­sid­ers her three mul­ti­col­ored Pomera­ni­ans — Fendi, Rolex and Coco-Chanel — her chil­dren.

She knows about ad­ver­sity. That sig­nif­i­cant other was once home­less. Her late mother strug­gled with ad­dic­tion. And Payne be­came care­giver for her younger brother, now 19, af­ter her mom’s death. But she also knows bless­ings.

“If you’ve never done any­thing for any­one else, es­pe­cially some­one in need, you’ll never feel the ful­fill­ment I felt last week. But I def­i­nitely didn’t think it would go this far,” she said.

“Watch­ing it go vi­ral, I’m think­ing, ‘What’s the big deal? Just for help­ing some­one?’ It could have been an ugly sit­u­a­tion out there, that cold was so bru­tal. I had to talk to God a few times, and as I headed home that last day, I knew what I had to do next.”

PRO­VIDED PHOTO

Candice Payne, who rented ho­tel rooms for dozens of the city’s home­less dur­ing the re­cent po­lar vortex, says she found her call­ing through the ex­pe­ri­ence.

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