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Incoming Chicago House CEO looks ahead
by Matt Simonette
2016-05-15

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Scott Ammarell says that housing is an issue that he's long been passionate about.

"One of the things I've learned is the necessity of having a roof over your head," said Ammarell, who, for many years, was a counsel for Chicago Housing Authority ( CHA ). On May 4, Chicago House and Social Services Agency announced that Ammarell would be its new CEO, replacing Rev. Stan Sloan, who will be leaving the organization at the end of June.

"When I found out that Stan was leaving, I was very interested in finding out whether I was a good fit for this position, because I have a passion for this community and a passion for housing," Ammarell recalled.

A native of Naperville, Illinois, Ammarell worked as counsel in the development and construction industry before going to CHA.

"It's so eye-opening to see the level of need, everywhere in the community," he said. "Not just in the LGBT community either. We'd open waitlists with 30,000 or 40,000 slots on them, and we'd get 300,000 people applying for these slots."

Ammarell said that a key lesson he learned working for CHA was that "all of the problems CHA deals with stem from maybe four or five percent of its clientele. The rest of them, 95 or 96 percent of the people, are just really trying to live their lives and get ahead. You realize what their struggles are. … I really internalized a lot of what they're going through."

While Ammarell was at CHA, the agency enforced a controversial federally mandated "one-strike" policy that prescribed automatic evictions for residents accused of criminal activity, including low-level drug offenses. Sometimes residents were threatened with eviction even if a guest or family member was accused—and not necessarily convicted—of wrong-doing. Critics charged that the policy was a means by which to clear residents from housing. Ammarell denied that.

"The rule was always there, but I was in a position where I was able to see that a hard-and-fast application of that rule could easily create a hardship and unfair situation," he said. "While I was chief legal officer, the CHA moved towards allowing people to move towards probation rather than losing their housing."

Property managers were initially responsible for following through on evictions, Ammarell said. The process was brought in-house and carried out by CHA officials under his watch. He added, "It had been inconsistently applied. Towards the end of my tenure there, I worked very hard to make sure that the policy was consistently applied to everyone, to make sure that, each person was able to take advantage of the probation rules if appropriate."

He said he viewed rules like "one-strike" as being inappropriate for the work Chicago House does. "The better approach is seeing people where they're at and work with them to get to a helpful, less-harmful place," Ammarell explained. "If residents are doing things that are self-destructive or getting them into trouble with the law, the idea is to assist them to get them to a better place, rather than just punish them for their infractions. Obviously, it will be situational, but I absolutely have no intention of trying to implement such a rule [at Chicago House]."

Ammarell was also active with Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ). "I joined the board there in 2010. One of the first things I did was to sign up for the Ride for AIDS. I thought that if I was going to learn more about the agency, one of the best ways to do it was jump in feet-first," he said. "With that, and serving on the board, I got a feel for what it takes to sustain an agency. Where does the money come from? Like Chicago House, it's a combination of fundraising, grants and other financing."

In the years ahead, Ammarell said, all social-service organizations will face significant challenges, adding, "The availability of funding is changing, and the challenge is to change with it. … Having a specific project, and a specific thing to fund, is the way to go. It's really becoming the focus of how funds are raised. The idea is to have a solid idea of a specific project and seek financing for that."

He said it was too early for him to elaborate on these ideas, but added, "I can say, that's consistent with what Chicago House does. If you look at the second word in its name—'house'—there are opportunities out there to enhance and expand the housing, and that's one of the things I will focus on. … It's going to take a lot of effort to make sure that the funding streams are there, and look for others. One of the things we did at CHA was making sure that there was a group of people always looking for funding opportunities," he added.

Chicago House's mission has evolved dramatically over the years. At its May 1 spring brunch, Sloan said that it had shifted from being about "loss and despair" to "hope and opportunity."

Reflecting on the organization's current work in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, Ammarell said, "I think there's a real synergy between an organization like Chicago House and an organization like Howard Brown and others that operate medical facilities. I really would like to explore how we can take advantage of that synergy, and how we can enhance what Howard Brown is doing and what Chicago House is doing. I absolutely think that there's work to be done with respect to prevention as well. I find it amazing that there are people out there speaking negatively about PrEP. It just reminds me, that kind of antagonism is born out of naiveté and misinformation. … You have to be vigilant about making sure that people remain educated."

He added that Chicago House has had one of "the best starts" in terms of its work with the transgender community. "I think it's absolutely incredible what Chicago House has done. I think there will be opportunities to expand on that. As people are learning about trans people, and finding out about the odds they face—the discrimination, the lack of housing, the lack of job training and availability—you're seeing people's attitudes change and doors opening. … The work that has been done must continue, and will continue."


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