By Harry Huggins
January 14, 2015 for Medill News Service
The animal rights group, PETA, helped distribute fur coats to homeless women at a Chicago nonprofit women Thursday morning. The coats came from a series of fur donation drives across America and were distributed to the clients of Matthew House in Bronzeville.
“The cold hurts in Chicago, you know,” Robin Powell said, twirling in her new brown, striped mink. “I just feel so special and loved right now.”
Matthew House helped Powell and her husband find an apartment on the South Side, but it burned down, leaving them homeless again.
“This is gonna keep me warm and protected until Matthew House helps us find a new place,” Powell said.
Mattie Dabbs received a sleek black mink. “This is simply awesome for someone to even donate this to the homeless people,” she said. “It’s warm, it’s cozy, it is great. It means that people care about people, and they certainly do here.”
PETA donated the coats as part of their efforts to promote animal rights. In the past, PETA has donated vegan food to soup kitchens and shelters, as well as wool and leather items that people clean out of their closets when they decide to stop wearing animal products.
Ashley Byrne, a PETA campaign specialist, said that the goals of an organization known for animal rights activism can intersect with the interests of people. Whether it be leather or livestock, “you can trace most of these issues back to the fact that they’re not just impacting animals, they’re impacting humans,” Byrne said.
Byrne said she chose Matthew House to receive the coats because they provide a valuable service to Chicagoans.
Matthew House started serving homeless Bronzeville residents in 1992. They provide daytime shelter, breakfast, lunch, counseling and case management to get people into housing. They typically serve 50 to 80 people daily, but that can almost double on frigid days like this past week.
Cynthia Milsap is the director of development at Matthew House. She said the coats help the homeless women most with layering.
“We know in Chicago the wind can be quite biting,” Milsap said, “so the better they’re able to layer themselves the warmer they’re able to stay.”
With the fur coats acquired, Milsap said the next greatest need for Matthew House is warm boots. She said most of their clients wear gym shoes, which get wet and don’t prevent frostbite well. So Matthew House is running a donation drive for new or gently used boots.
This year, Illinois’ budget woes have left Matthew House wanting for more than just donated goods.
Sanja Stinson is their executive director. She said that while Springfield argues over the budget, Matthew House has had to cut back services and staff. Their learning center and job service center have decreased their hours. “Right now probably every staff member is doing three to five jobs at one time,” Stinson said, “including me.”
Still, Matthew House remains committed to serving the homeless residents of Bronzeville.
“We have a relationship with the community,” Milsap said. “We know our elected officials, our aldermen, our state representatives. We have conversations and we’re constantly pressing for the issues of the homeless with them.”