We’ve been reporting on how unpaid parking and automated traffic camera tickets can quickly spiral out of control for Chicago’s working poor, and particularly for African Americans.
Thousands of drivers file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy each year to cope with ticket debt, getting a chance to lift license suspensions or to protect their vehicles from the city’s boot list.
But bankruptcy often leaves drivers in worse financial shape.
Here are the stories of some drivers who have struggled with the consequences of their unpaid tickets. Some managed to pay off their debts; others are now in bankruptcy court.
By sharing these stories, we hope to start a conversation about how Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection affect people’s lives. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rosalva Nava, 50, said she was barred from taking a job at Chicago Public Schools because of unpaid tickets. The job: recess monitor at her children’s school.
Nava owed more than $5,000 in unpaid tickets that dated to the mid-1990s, which is when her driver’s license was suspended. She found ways to survive for more than a decade without it — sometimes driving illegally, but more often relying on friends, family and public transportation to get around.
Over the years, she saw commercials for bankruptcy firms on TV. But she never went that route.
“I considered filing for bankruptcy, but I was too chicken,” she said. “My goal is to buy a house, and I didn’t want to damage my record.”
A few years ago, she finally paid off her ticket debt using tax refunds.
“I think I would have … paid off my tickets a long time ago and been more economically secure if I’d gotten the job (at my son’s school) when I had the opportunity,” she said.
Angelo Johnson, 23, is a married father of an infant son — with another child coming on the way. He works as a food delivery driver, a job that requires a license. “I’m a pretty dependable guy when it comes to taking care of my responsibilities,” he said.
It wasn’t always that way. Johnson owes the city close to $10,000 for unpaid tickets he started accumulating as a teenager for illegally tinted windows and not having a city sticker.
“When I look back at it, I didn’t have a job and all these tickets were coming in for silly stuff,” he said. “By the time I actually got a job and wanted to make a few payments, it was so high. It was like, ‘How do I deal with this?’
“At one point in time, I thought the tickets would just go away because I didn’t have a car anymore. It’s extremely hard to accept.”
Johnson filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year — his second filing since 2016 — to hold onto his driver’s license.
Caroline Furdge, 56, got on a city payment plan last fall, just hours after discovering that her car was booted. She used her meager savings — money she’d put aside to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy — to pay for the down payment plus boot fees.
Furdge doesn’t have a checking account. Once a month, she drives to a currency exchange in her neighborhood and pays 50 cents for a money order to make each $57 payment to the city. So far, she said, the payment plan works for her.
“I needed to get my car,” said Furdge, who has a half-hour commute from her home in Washington Heights to her job as a home care worker in the Kenwood neighborhood. “If I don’t have my car, I don’t work. My car is my transportation.”
Yolanda Williams, 52, qualified for a hardship plan with the city to pay off about $1,800 in unpaid tickets and boot fees. She doesn’t have a full-time job, mostly because her 10-year-old daughter has Down’s syndrome and requires a lot of care. Williams and her daughter rely on $736 a month in combined Supplemental Security Income and child support checks. They live with Williams’ mother in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.
“Every month for a year and a half I had to pay [the city] about $50,” she said. “If I didn’t live with my mom, I would be struggling … She would ask me, ‘You’ve got the payment for this month?’ I would put in what I had, and she would give me the rest.”
Williams said she needs a car to get her daughter to weekly occupational therapy appointments downtown, and to Special Olympics practices twice a week in the Pilsen neighborhood.
“I need my car,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be no option to have no car.”