PILSEN — A beloved Pilsen paletero who has struggled for years to find adequate housing and keep up with bills will be the first to benefit from a new city policy.
Don Ananías Ocampo, a well-known paletero, now has housing thanks to new policy that makes it easier for self-employed workers in Chicago to qualify for affordable housing.
For years, 78-year-old Ocampo has been a fixture in the neighborhood, selling paletas and other frozen treats at 18th and Paulina streets. People could find him on the corner near the 18th Street Pink Line station in the spring and summer talking with neighbors and offering smiles with his treats.
But in recent years, he’s struggled to find safe housing and pay medical bills. In 2019, activist Hilda Burgos and neighbors raised $10,000 for OCampo. But two years later, he needed help again to pay for a knee surgery and help him secure housing. At the time, Ocampo was living in a single room behind a restaurant, in quarters that weren’t dignified or safe, his friend Ben Emmrich said, after he was priced out of an apartment in Back of the Yards.
The 2021 campaign raised more than $15,000 for the paletero and Burgos was able to get him some health care through a program.
Block Club’s article about Ocampo’s continuing plight caught the attention of Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Samir Mayekar, who sent it to Department of Housing officials to ask what the city could do to help Ocampo, said Sendy Soto, managing deputy commissioner at the Department of Housing.
Ocampo had issues qualifying for housing because it was difficult to prove his income because he’s a vendor that deals in cash and is self-employed. Previously, workers had to provide third-party verification like a formal paystub to qualify for subsidized housing. That made it difficult for him to prove he was earning 30% or less of the area median income to qualify for affordable housing.
The Department of Housing, with help from the Illinois Housing Development Authority, had been working with the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund officials to change the policy, Soto later said. Communities United advocated for the change.
Once the policy changed, Ocampo was able to self-certify his proof of income. Mayakar’s email “expedited” action that led to Ocampo securing housing, Soto said.
Now, he’s recovering from knee surgery in an affordable apartment at West 21st Street and South Racine Avenue operated by nonprofit The Resurrection Project.
In August 2019, Hoy reported on Ocampo’s deteriorating health and the difficulties immigrants face as they grow older with fewer job prospects. Ocampo immigrated from Guerrero, Mexico to Pilsen after his wife died 30 years ago, according to the report.
In Chicago, Ocampo has worked in factories, as a dishwasher in restaurants and other odd jobs through temp agencies. Eventually, he started selling ice cream and paletas for Cafe Emmanuel, 1915 W. 19th St., in the spring and summer, and sold queso fresco door to door in the winter, he said.
The change in policy will help other aging immigrants, too, officials said.
“I’m excited to see how many residents will be helped by this policy change, and the impact we can make,” Soto said.
The department is working to spread word about the new policy by working with aldermanic offices, community organizations and landlords, she said.
Annissa Lambirth-Garrett, executive director of the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, said the self-certification policy means the program will accept notarized statements or signed affidavits to prove an individual’s income. The program doesn’t require applicants have a social security number or proof of citizenship, either.
“[Difficulties proving income] should not be a barrier to housing,” said Annissa Lambirth-Garrett, executive director of the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund. “Understanding the need and wanting to help, in response [CLIHTF] created a more flexible and well-vetted policy of self-certification of income that can now serve Chicago’s ever changing communities.”
At a press conference Friday, Ocampo said he’s incredibly grateful for all the help he’s received from Pilsen neighbors and officials. Everyone has looked out for him, he said.
“Many, many thanks to the community, I feel so grateful and happy,” Ocampo said.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said the way neighbors cared for and advocated for Ocampo “speaks volumes” about the character of Pilsen residents.
“If it wasn’t because of the tireless efforts of residents, this would not have been possible,” the alderman said.
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