Longtime housing advocate Debra La Joyce Thornton, age 64, passed away Thursday, July 1. Debra is survived by her mother, four children and three grandchildren she loved dearly.
Described by many as extremely hardworking and dedicated, Debra spent the last two decades helping hundreds of people across the Chicagoland area find stable, safe and dignified housing with reputable landlords. Most recently, she did that work as a housing technician at AMITA Health Housing and Health Alliance, a role she held for more than eight years.
“She really was a force in ending homelessness in Chicago, especially for people living with HIV,” said Dave Thomas, Director of the Flexible Housing Pool at the Center for Housing and Health (CHH), a supporting organization of AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC). “She was their advocate and made sure that they were taken care of. She was always on their side, helping people get through hard times in their lives.”
Ending homelessness for hundreds of Illinois residents
Housing navigators help residents experiencing homelessness or housing instability find and secure stable and safe apartments. They handle necessary paperwork and act as an advocate for renters’ rights. Debra was one of the first housing navigators in Chicago, back when they were referred to as housing advocates. Although she worked for a few different agencies, she did the same work for the Chicagoland community for more than 20 years.
Over the years, Debra connected hundreds of people who qualified for Housing Opportunities for People Living with HIV/AIDS (HOPWA) and Chicago’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund to needed housing resources. Another housing program Debra’s work supported was AFC’s Hotel to Home project, where she served as one of four housing technicians that helped people living with HIV move through temporary housing from the street or other unstable situations into stable, long-term housing in one of AFC's housing programs.
Debra believed everyone deserved to live in a safe, well-maintained building. Many colleagues remembered how hard Debra worked to achieve this vision. If a client could only meet to go through paperwork on a Saturday because of work obligations, Debra would meet that client bright and early Saturday morning. If she needed to stay late after work, she’d stay late. Debra would do whatever was needed to move a client into stable housing as soon as possible.
She did that without ever stigmatizing or giving up on a client. Though she was firm and demanded respect, she would give that same respect back to clients and would go above and beyond to find them secure housing.
“If you’re going to mold a housing advocate/navigator, look to what she did,” said Frank De La Mora, AFC Housing Stabilization Coordinator. “If you want to do it right, you have to think of Debra Thornton.”
Strengthened by faith, a mother figure to all who knew her
In addition to being a tireless advocate for clients, many colleagues remember Debra as a supportive mother figure. Kenyatta Black, Director of AMITA’s Bettendorf Place and Southside Community Housing, said although she was Debra’s supervisor, even she saw Debra as a mother to her.
“She was so encouraging,” Kenyatta said. “If she saw you and thought you were feeling down, she would pray for you and encourage you. She was extremely giving.”
Frank remembers that Debra gave the warmest hugs. Korrey Kooistra, executive director at AMITA’s Alexian Brothers Housing and Health Alliance, said she was also ridiculously funny and kind.
Debra was also a woman of strong faith. Despite any life challenges, her faith strengthened her and enabled her to persevere. She belonged to Holy Temple Cathedral Church in Harvey, IL and deeply loved her church family.
Outside of her service, faith and family, Debra enjoyed gospel music, decaf coffee in the winter, sweet tea in the summer and chocolate cake, especially from Portillo’s. Debra will be deeply missed by her AMITA family, AFC and CHH staff, residents, landlords and more.
“Sometimes in life you come across a person that is a light in a world that can many times be so dark,” Frank said. “Debra Thornton was truly a light not just to her clients but to anyone that had the good fortune of meeting her. She will be missed by so many people because of the kindness she so willingly offered to all of us.”
Memorial services for Debra were held Sat., July 10 at Holy Temple Cathedral in Harvey, IL.