A Good Samaritan Displays a Lineage of Kindness
“I’ve always had a serial entrepreneur spirit,” says Candice Payne, a realtor who specializes in rehabbing properties in Chicago. “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.”
The ‘last week’ Payne is referencing is her decision to help keep over 100 homeless people from freezing to death in Chicago during the recent “polar vortex.”
What was your goal when starting this project?
Payne, who spearheaded the effort, said she never wanted attention. Her goal was simply to make sure nobody suffered in the bitter weather.
As the punishing cold front swept into Chicago, the city’s homeless were forced to trudge forward in temperatures of 25 below zero. Wind child were twice as low. Along Roosevelt Road near the Dan Ryan Expy., encampments of thin tents barely broke the arctic air.
“I was crying,” Payne says.
It was too much for Payne to handle, so she decided to pay for hotel rooms — out of her own pocket — to try to get as many people to warmth as possible.
How did you spread the message about your project?
“I went on social media and asked people if they have vans or anything,” Payne said. “Would anyone want to pitch in to help me to transport? [I said] I’ll pay them for the vans to come and help.”
Her act of generosity quickly spread. Payne paid for 20 hotel rooms at an Amber Inn on S. Michigan Ave., and friends started pitching in.
“It went from us being able to provide 20 rooms, to us being able to provide 60 rooms,” Payne says. “It was only going to be for one night, and it went from one night to four nights.”
“We’re not an organization,” Payne explains. “We’re just regular people.”
What Inspired You to Get Started?
For Payne and her husband, Carlos Callahan, it was personal.
“I lived in my vehicle,” Callahan says, adding that he’s spent time living on the streets. “People judge the homeless a lot, but you never know what these people went through. And I know for me, I wasn’t on drugs, I wasn’t in a bad situation at home. Things just happened.”
However, the homeless people she helped arrived on the streets, Payne said, she wanted to make sure their stories wouldn’t end there.
“It was freezing,” Payne states. “No one could have stayed outside that long.”
“What’s the big deal? Just for helping someone?” Payne asks in response to her actions going viral. “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.”
Payne grew up in the crime riddled Chicago neighborhood of 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. She knows about adversity. In addition to her husband’s issues, her late mother struggled with addiction. In 2013 Payne became the primary caregiver for her younger brother, now 19, after her mom’s death.
But she also knows blessings.
A graduate of Chicago Public Schools, 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.
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.
In addition to her significant other, she considers her three multi-colored Pomeranians — Fendi, Rolex and Coco-Chanel — her children.
What Do You Want People to Know About You?
“I am a regular person,” Payne admits. “It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world… that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together.
“This was a temporary fix, and it has inspired me to come up with more of a permanent solution,” explains as recalls a special phone call — from J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois.
“He thanked me,” Payne smiles. “He said it was one of the biggest acts of kindness we have seen in a long time.”
Capitalizing on her new viral fame, Payne accepted an invitation to appear on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.” At the show the real estate agent and her husband got a surprise gift of their own.
DeGeneres handed them a $50,000 check. The talk show host was prepared to give the couple $25,000, but after they recounted the story on air, she called Walmart during a commercial break and got the retailer to double the donation, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Payne instantly donated the money to her nonprofit, Action for a Cause Now. She also put together an online fundraiser to start working on a more permanent solution.
“Of course we can’t solve homelessness ... overnight,” Payne said. “But it’s cold in Chicago every year.”
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 says. “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.”
Where is the Future of Your Program?
Payne started Action For A Cause Now two years ago but hadn’t decided what to do with it. Now, she’s decided its focus will be helping the homeless. She started a GoFundMe page that has brought in over $28,000.00. The two main stated goals of the organization are to transform shipping containers into sleeping quarters for nightly shelter and to restore multi-unit buildings to provide a more permanent living situation for those in need.
“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 explains.
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,” Payne admits. “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 thousands 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.
A no-brainer that escaped thousands of people showed the entire world that Candice Payne’s Lineage is kindness. What’s your lineage?