When temperatures plummeted well below freezing, the residents of Chicago headed for shelter. But not everyone had somewhere to go – that was, not until Candice Payne stepped in. And after the real estate developer went the extra mile for the homeless, Ellen DeGeneres gave her the ultimate surprise in return.
As fans of DeGeneres know, the comedian likes to do her part to help others. In fact, the star has lent her support to many different causes, including wildlife, education and rebuilding lives after natural disasters. And in 2018 her wife Portia De Rossi started The Ellen Fund in her honor.
That’s why it’s not surprising that DeGeneres would be touched by Payne’s story. When she heard about it, she wanted to meet the 34-year-old in person and invited her onto her hit talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was there that the Good Samaritan told DeGeneres – and the audience – her moving and inspiring tale.
In January 2019 Chicago was hit with a polar vortex. This is a swirl of freezing air that is located in the North Pole. However, it can expand in the winter, sending that air south and creating cold temperatures in regions outside of the polar area, such as in North America.
This weather phenomenon can be extremely dangerous. In early 2014 the polar vortex caused a cold wave that hit Canada and the United States. Millions of people were affected by the change in the weather, and it also led to 21 people losing their lives and caused an estimated $5 billion in damages.
And when a similar instance occurred in Chicago five years later, it was equally terrifying for residents. Illinois wasn’t the only place that experienced the mercury plunging in a drastic way. Over the space of a few days, there were at least 12 fatalities in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Minnesota.
One man in Chicago lost his life after being run over by a snow plow. And a student died in Iowa, where temperatures were as low as -51°F. There, people were advised not to breathe deeply and to avoid talking while outside to prevent them from causing damage to their health because of the cold.
According to reports, the situation caused an increase in accidents on the roads. But people also died from apparently being subjected to the subzero weather for too long. The icy blast that occurred around the country was record breaking at times, and Minnesota had some of the lowest temperatures at -54°F.
In Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, a state of emergency was declared, and millions of residents were urged to stay indoors. The cold wave even spread to Mississippi and Alabama, where a state of emergency was confirmed despite the typically more pleasant climate. And New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were also hit.
So it’s no surprise that the polar vortex had an impact on day-to-day life in those areas. Ice and snow covered the roads, while many flights ended up postponed or canceled altogether. What’s more, the schools were shut down until the extreme weather had passed – so were some companies.
Scientific evidence has shown that the polar vortex could be influenced by a jetstream that helps the cold air travel down toward those densely inhabited regions. Although the phenomenon is still being explored, some experts attribute this to climate change. Of course, global warming is also causing temperatures to rise to unprecedented highs.
With the frost having a tremendous impact on cities, concerns began to grow for those without access to shelter. In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless revealed in 2010 that hypothermia ends the lives of 700 people who are sleeping rough in the United States each year. And the cold wave could cause that number to increase.
Fortunately, people are doing their part to change that. In Chicago six warming centers opened during the polar vortex that provided a place for the homeless to take shelter and stay out of the cold. These were set up in various buildings and buses, with some accessible around the clock.
The city’s deputy commissioner of homeless services, Alisa Rodriguez, declared that those without a roof over their heads were making the most of the centers. Lincoln Park Community Services was one of the places that provided shelter in their local church. However, it wasn’t enough for all the people that needed it.
The organization’s executive director, Dan Hula, explained that the demand was still higher than they could keep up with. “There’s never enough beds,” he told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in January 2019. “There’s never enough shelter. We need housing.” And despite the fact that she doesn’t work with the homeless professionally, Payne knew she wanted to help.
Payne, who lives in Hazel Crest, Chicago, got her real estate license and parlayed it into a business. However, she recently decided to work from home instead of going into the office because of the extreme weather in the area. In fact, Payne telephoned her employees to let them know that none of them should venture outside either.
But as she prepared to hole up at home until the bad weather had passed, something dawned on Payne. “I started thinking, what about the people who live outside? Who don’t have a home to go to?” she explained on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. That’s when she knew what she had to do. “It was a no-brainer,” Payne added.
Payne told DeGeneres that she knew she could use her credit card to make a difference. The realtor figured out that she was able to pay for some homeless people to take shelter – at least as the polar vortex reached its worst. “I can go and charge 20 hotel rooms on my American Express,” she thought at the time.
So Payne began the process of trying to book rooms to provide a safe place for those in need. However, she didn’t get the response she was looking for from hotels in Chicago. “As I get to calling around, no one wanted them,” she admitted. “It wasn’t good for business.”
Nevertheless, Payne didn’t give up and kept making phone calls. And finally, her efforts paid off. The Amber Inn motel agreed to house the homeless people – and they couldn’t have been more accommodating. “The manager picked up and said, ‘Absolutely, whatever you need, whatever you want,’” Payne recalled to DeGeneres.
DeGeneres was clearly impressed by the generosity of the motel and applauded it. “Good for you, Amber Inn motel,” she said as the audience joined in. Then, Payne revealed that she had booked 30 of the available rooms with the help of manager, Robyn Smith. But there was still something that she had to figure out.
Payne only had one vehicle of her own, so she turned to social media and asked if others would join her in helping the homeless. The real estate developer was hoping that she could pay for the services of a large vehicle to transport those in need of shelter to The Amber Inn. But she wasn’t expecting the response she got.
Before long, Payne’s social media post had gone viral, and people wanted to be a part of the generous gesture. At the time, she had booked 30 rooms for one night. But as others pitched in, that amount kept growing. “We were able to secure five nights and 72 rooms,” she told DeGeneres. “We helped 122 people.”
So whom exactly did Payne manage to help? “We had all types of people. We had pregnant women,” she said. Furthermore, she added, “We had children. We had disabled people.” Some of those who stayed at The Amber Inn had even been in hospital and were living on the street right after having had surgery.
Over the five days, Payne got to know the people that were staying at the motel on a personal level, and it had a profound effect on her. In fact, she told the Chicago Sun-Times in February that it gave her “a new purpose.” She continued, “For five days, my life, my heart, was there with the homeless.”
Payne continued, “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.” However, she admitted that she had known that her actions wouldn’t solve everything. Payne added that it “was just a temporary fix.”
DeGeneres pointed out that homelessness was an important issue that needed to be tackled. And Payne explained that it was a cause close to her heart, because her boyfriend had once been homeless himself. In fact, she wants to put an end to judgments about those sleeping rough – as it could happen to anybody.
“The misconception about homeless people is that they are lazy or they just don’t want a job,” Payne revealed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “And truth be told, a lot of people are one paycheck away from their same situation.” DeGeneres agreed that the many natural disasters in the world were also destroying homes and could easily leave others in the same boat.
According to The Amber Inn website, the generosity didn’t stop with the rooms. Instead, food and other supplies were sent to those that were going to be staying at the motel. “It takes people caring to make an impact, and Candice, along with her group that were out that cold winter’s night, showed the world what humanity is all about,” a page on their website reads.
Clearly, DeGeneres was moved by Payne’s story. And just like the real estate developer, the celebrity wants to have a role in helping those who are homeless. So she decided to do something incredible on her show to demonstrate her appreciation of what Payne did – and the moment left the guest speechless.
DeGeneres had learned that Payne had gone to Walmart to pick up some supplies for the people that she had been helping. And she disclosed that the store had heard about it too – and wanted to say thank you. That’s when DeGeneres revealed the huge surprise that she had in store for Payne.
Payne was presented with a $25,000 check from Walmart, which was giving her the money to repay her for her generosity. And it was clear that the recipient couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “Oh my God,” she said as she placed her head in her hands in shock.
DeGeneres wanted to know what Payne’s next move would be. And it seems that her work during the polar vortex is only the beginning. In fact, Payne had tried to start a non-profit two years earlier called Action For A Cause – but in the end, the timing apparently wasn’t right, and it didn’t go any further.
“I didn’t do anything with it,” Payne said. “Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Although she knew that she could make an impact on the community with some of her own money, as in this instance, Payne intended to do something on a larger scale through her nonprofit.
Finally, Payne came up with what she felt was the perfect solution. “I can use my passion for real estate to help house the homeless,” she told DeGeneres. “So I’m buying multi-units and I’m rehabbing them.” Payne explained that she’s remodeling “distressed” apartments for those in need of a roof over their heads.
Now, Payne is encouraging people to join her in her efforts. “Hopefully others will jump on the bandwagon and help,” she said. And DeGeneres was extremely encouraging. “I bet they will,” the talk show host admitted. “It’s a great idea.” However, it turned out that the surprises weren’t over just yet.
DeGeneres revealed that she had been in touch with Walmart during the commercial break. And she had told it that she wanted to do even more to help Payne give back. Evidently, it had agreed – so the comedian presented Payne with yet another check for $25,000, bringing her total up to $50,000.
Payne told the Chicago Sun-Times that she had been invited onto other talk shows such as Good Morning America and Steve. However, she said, “I chose Ellen over the others, because I love Ellen.” And while Payne will be using her own money to buy units to house the homeless, she asked for donations to go toward renovating them.
Within three weeks, Payne had raised more than $28,000 through a GoFundMe page. And she also intends to turn some shipping containers into overnight shelters for people in need. Now Payne hopes that her actions will inspire others to give back – and admits that she can’t believe how far her good deed has gone.
“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,” Payne said. “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.”