So just who is Candice Payne, the Chicagoan who rented hotel rooms for the homeless during the recent polar vortex?
After her selfless deed went viral, it drew an onslaught of volunteers locally and donations nationally, leading to last week’s appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
There, she got a $50,000 gift from Walmart, which she turned around and donated to her nonprofit, Action For A Cause Now.
A humble and successful 34-year-old businesswoman, 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 said in a recent chat.
“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.”
Payne started Action For A Cause Now two years ago but hadn’t decided what to do with it. Now, she’s decided to focus on helping the homeless. She started a Gofundme page that has brought in about $25,000. Besides building multi-unit housing for the homeless,it also will join a trend by creating night shelters for the homeless out of shipping containers.
“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 said.
Chicagoans cocooned during the vortex that brought temperatures under 20 degrees below zero on Jan. 30-31. Then word spread of the efforts of a good Samaritan to shelter the homeless at the Amber Inn on the South Side, the only hotel that would take them.
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, so 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 more than $23,000 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 that triggered requests for TV appearances not only from Ellen DeGeneres, but “Steve Harvey” and “Good Morning America.”
“I chose Ellen over the others, because I love Ellen,” Payne said.
Payne lives in Hazel Crest, but grew up in 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.
A graduate of Chicago Public Schools’ Lindblom Math & Science Academy, 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.
“I’ve always had a serial entrepreneur spirit. During those eight years, I’d started all different types of businesses,” she said. “It wasn’t until I met the legendary Jacob da Builder, who inspired me to do fix and flips, that I found what works for me.”
Her success at rehabbing homes last year won her the Cook County Land Bank Authority’s Project of the Year Award.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.
Payne has a significant other, and considers her three multi-colored Pomeranians — Fendi, Rolex and Coco-Chanel — her children.
She knows about adversity. That significant other was once homeless. Her late mother struggled with addiction. And Payne became caregiver for her younger brother, now 19, after her mom’s death. But she also knows blessings.
“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,” she said.
“Watching it go viral, I’m thinking, ‘What’s the big deal? Just for helping someone?’ 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.”