Kenneth Wideman, 77, and his sister Sheila, 75, are Evanston’s only two reparations recipients who haven’t used a cent of their grants. 

“I do not have any property; my sister doesn’t have any property, and we were on the list,” Wideman said during the public comment period of Evanston’s reparations committee’s Feb. 2 meeting.

Wearing a Vietnam veteran cap, Wideman came to the meeting to ask the committee to add more options for people who don’t own property to access reparations. He had learned just days earlier that the reparations grants that he and sister held are set to expire sometime in March.

“I came here this morning to ask the committee, the people that’s in charge, if possible, that you can make some changes or help my sister and I to get something out of the reparations before we are eliminated,” he said.

Kenneth Wideman speaking at the Feb. 2 reparations committee meeting. Credit: Gina Castro

The committee offered no answers that day, and although the RoundTable reached out to committee chair Robin Rue Simmons for comment multiple times, she did not respond. Kierra Abrams, a representative at FirstRepair, which Rue Simmons founded and is executive director, said Rue Simmons won’t be available for an interview until May.

The problem the Widemans face is built into the city’s reparations program. The committee prioritized reparations applicants who were at least 18 years old between 1919 and 1969, or people who are at least 72 now. The $25,000 grants can be used only for mortgage assistance, home improvements or to purchase a home, despite discussions to extend the money to people who rent.

Neither Wideman nor his sister are interested in buying a home, he said. Renting fits their housing needs best in this chapter of their lives.

Kenneth Wideman prefers living in his apartment, where he doesn’t have to worry about mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. If there are issues with appliances or a clogged drain, he can call maintenance.

“I don’t want to be taking care of a home at my particular age,” he said.

He is 100% disabled, as determined by Veteran Affairs, and lives in a subsidized apartment on a fixed income, he said. The situation is similar for his sister. The city confirmed that she also lives in a subsidized apartment. She declined to be interviewed. 

“She’s disabled, too,” Kenneth said in an interview with the RoundTable. “She can’t handle a house. Right now, she can hardly walk. She has to walk with a cane.”

If there weren’t any restrictions on how to spend the reparations grant, he’d use the funds for rent and furniture, he said.

“There should be more options,” he said.

“If they would give me, say for instance, like $100,000 or something like that, I probably would change my mind. I would probably buy a house because the $25,000 is just not enough. It’s a drop in the bucket.”

The other 14 recipients for the restorative housing program own property. The majority of them have already used their entire grants for mortgage assistance and home improvements.

The reparations committee addressed housing first because it was the highest of five concerns raised by the community during Equity and Empowerment Commission’s July 2019 meetings, according to the Evanston Local Reparations website.

The committee adopted each of the commission’s recommendations for housing-related reparations except rental assistance.

In a Sept. 9, 2019, memo to the mayor and City Council, the commission recommended providing “housing rental assistance to income-qualified, African-American residents in Evanston.”

The reparations subcommittee debated offering rental assistance as an option but ultimately decided against it, said city Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings.

The reparations committee and subcommittee never asked the city to research the legality of using reparations funding for rental assistance either, Cummings confirmed.

“I suspect it was because the program is meant to remedy two issues – housing discrimination and creating wealth,” Cummings said in an email to a RoundTable reporter on Feb. 10. “Rental assistance will help the wealth of the landlord, but not the recipient of the grant.”

Robin Rue Simmons, chair of the reparations committee, isn’t available for an interview until May, a First Repair representative said. Credit: Genie Lemieux

The city’s reparations website doesn’t feature a study or cite evidence identifying homeownership as the best solution for repairing the housing discrimination Black Evanston residents endured.

But regardless of whether home ownership or renting are the best solutions, the reparations committee has the power to bring more options to the table, Cummings said.

“I would imagine that trend is going to continue in that roughly two out of every group of 16 folks will have a similar issue,” said Eighth Ward City Council Member and committee member Devon Reid.

More options

The city never asked applicants if they owned property during the application process, the city and committee members confirmed. The city still doesn’t know how many of the remaining 133 applicants own property.

“These individuals filled out the form as was asked, and they did not lie about not having a home ownership,” said reparations committee member Carlis Sutton. “So my question is, why should these two [Kenneth and Sheila Wideman] be penalized for following the process of the City of Evanston?”

Ramona Burton, one of the first 16 grant recipients, used her $25,000 to repair her home. She doesn’t think cash payments are a good idea because she’s concerned about securing the funds. However, she does think the reparations program should offer a rental assistance option.

“I’ve said this every time that I’ve been asked,” Burton began. “It should be broadened. It shouldn’t just be the three choices that the first 16 had because everybody doesn’t own a home. But they also need the money just as bad.”

Shriver Center on Poverty Law agreed that home ownership builds intergenerational wealth and more secure housing. But Eric Sirota, director of Housing Justice for the Shriver Center, said he doesn’t think assistance to own a home or rent is the silver bullet.

“There are always, for a wide variety of reasons, going to be people who are renting, and advancing equity in that space is essential, too,” Sirota said. “I don’t really view any one of these things being the solution to past and current housing discrimination. But there are a lot of manifestations of racial inequity in housing that need to be addressed, and a lot of them need to be addressed through a variety of approaches.”

LaTanya Jackson Wilson, vice president of advocacy for the Shriver Center, said choice is key in repairing harm.

“With this grant of $25,000, it is important that people have choices about how they use the money,” Jackson Wilson said. “If they are ancestors, and they have been discriminated against then the harm has already occurred, and they should have the choice about how they use the money.”

Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward), said he supports cash payment reparations. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Reid joined the reparations committee when the options for the restorative housing program had already been decided, he said, as did council members Bobby Burns and Krissie Harris.

Reid supports giving recipients tax-free cash payment reparations.

“I’ve made referrals to allow for more flexibility,” Reid said. “In my eyes, direct cash benefits is the way to go. We have opinions from law firms that say that direct cash benefits will be acceptable and that they’d be tax free. And it would be in line with the program that we have already. So really, it’s a policy decision as to whether or not we want to allow that, and I one hundred percent support that and have been long advocating since the beginning of my time on this committee that we do that.”

Sutton also supports cash payment. The city legal department, however, doesn’t advise cash payment because recipients could be liable for taxes on the grant.

The reparations committee has the power to propose cash payment. If the other committee members are in agreement, the committee would send the proposal to the City Council to make the final decision.

“I just think that they should have told us or had another way to distribute the money with people that didn’t have a home, like my sister and myself,” Kenneth Wideman said.

Lack of communication

Wideman learned about the pending expiration of his grant when a friend called him about an article in the RoundTable.

“That’s how it got back to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have known about it. Nobody called me or told me about it.”

Kenneth Wideman is one of the first 16 recipients of local reparations in Evanston. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

The city talked to Wideman about the reparations grant only once, in March 2022, he said.

The city said it had met with his sister Sheila twice but held off on meeting with Kenneth because he “indicated to staff that he needed more time,” Tasheik Kerr said in a Feb. 13 email.

Kerr, assistant to the city manager, told the RoundTable on Jan. 27 that the city planned to follow up with both Widemans about their expiring grants.

The city has yet to speak with Kenneth Wideman about his expiring grant since March 2022. On Feb. 27, Kerr told the RoundTable she will have direction for Kenneth and Sheila’s situation on Friday, March 3, the same month his grant expires.

The city won’t disclose the exact date when the grants expire, except to say it expires one year after the city met with the applicant.

Sutton said he spoke with Kenneth Wideman on Feb. 28 about the grant. Kenneth and Sheila, who both have children, have the option of listing their children as beneficiaries of the grant.

Kenneth Wideman told the RoundTable that’s not an option for him either. His son, Shane, isn’t prepared to purchase a home right now.

The next reparations committee meeting is 9 a.m. Thursday, March 2 at the Morton Civic Center. In lieu of its regular meeting, the committee is hosting a listening session both in-person and online.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. My (Cedric Watt) father was born in a house that no longer stands in downtown Evanston, for 80 years he has been a resident here…..
    and he hasn’t been offered any reparations yet his mother had two different houses she owned in the Leland and Emerson area

  2. So Cummings said “Rental assistance will help the wealth of the landlord, but not the recipient of the grant,” ignoring the possibility that elders could put their rent money in the bank while the so-called reparations ordinance pays their landlord? The ordinance looks like a cruel joke for these two elders. City Council must act immediately to remedy this travesty.

  3. Some options for the Reparations Committee to consider:
    1. Extend the time for grant recipients to decide how to use their $25,000 award.
    2. Add rental payments as an allowable housing-relating use for the funds (with restrictions on landlords to prevent them from increasing rent beyond normal annual growth rates).
    3. Since a primary purpose of the reparation program is to build the generational wealth denied to those discriminated against by racist housing policies in the past, allow a recipient who does not need the funds for a qualifying housing investment (and whose children also do not have a current desire to invest in home ownership) to put the funds in trust for his/her heirs for a qualifying housing investment after the recipient dies.

    In addition, clarify for the future if recipients need to be current or potential homeowners, and/or if rental payments are an allowable use of the funds.

  4. All I’m gonna say is…”I told you so…”. Several voices in the community tried to stop this vote to pass Evanston reparations because they were rushing for publicity sake to make Evanston famous at the expense of the Black community and the true meaning of reparations across the country. And there was no plan in place. Alderperson Tom Suffredin tried to tell the community to pump the brakes because there was NO PLAN in place. No one would listen to him. He was painted a racist. Former Alderperson Cicely Fleming tried to get the council and the community to see what was REALLY happening. No one would listen to her. Alderperson Devon Reid has been super supportive to the committee, but repeatedly dismissed and disrespected by members of the Reparations committee and Corporate Counsel when he has brought forward solutions to fix the program. And now…if you watch the most recent Reparations meeting from February 2, 2023…your heart will break hearing Mr. Wideman almost plead with the committee after they approved him and his sister and then had them waiting for over a year. Evanston reparations is simply a housing program that never should have been called Reparations because it’s Reparations. You don’t exclude the already excluded, causing more disappointment and trauma and then call that their Reparations. New windows and toilets is not Reparations. Pushing people to apply for a bank loan is not Reparations. I supported Evanston reparations in the very beginning…until it shifted…and they started using words like bank loans for our reparations. I spoke out, along with many others. We were painted as “haters”, “crabs n’ barrel”, “ignorant”, and “uneducated” by some members of the reparations of committee and their supporters. We simply cared about our people and saw what was REALLY happening after the fast moving PR train left the station and the Hollywood lights showed up. It was never about real reparations or Black people. Because if it was, Mr. Wideman wouldn’t have had a need to plead for what was promised to him and his family. Who is REALLY capitalizing from Evanston reparations? Because it’s not the Black residents.

  5. If the facts as presented in this article are correct, and the reparations committee failed to ask potential recipients basic questions, then it seems to me the committee was negligent. It’s unreasonable to think that persons in their late seventies who are otherwise unable or unwilling to purchase property at that point in their lives would find it practical, if not possible, to qualify for a mortgage.

    Jim Kepler, Eighth Ward

  6. For heavens sake. If applicants otherwise qualify for reparations how does *anyone* have the right and authority to determine how these folks spend the funds for which they are qualified to receive?
    From whence comes the paternalistic right and authority to determine how recipients “should” spend a reparations check?

  7. “The $25,000 grants can be used only for mortgage assistance, home improvements or to purchase a home, despite discussions to extend the money to people who rent…

    The city never asked applicants if they owned property during the application process, the city and committee members confirmed. The city still doesn’t know how many of the remaining 133 applicants own or don’t own property…”


    I pray that Mr. Wideman and his sister will eventually be offered rental assistance… they did their “due diligence”, and the Reparations Committee need to do *theirs*…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

    1. Wasn’t it up to people applying to see what program is for? Not asking if they own or not is irrelevant since one option was to help w hone down payment. If they are allowed to use money for different purpose it is not fair to those that understood the rules and didn’t apply if they were not interested in using the money in the way this program was intended.

      A new program option could be created with different rules. This initial program was of limited breadth and was based on survey of initial community needs. Simmons led the team that developed it and repeatedly explained it.