WGN TV: Fire guts South Side youth homeless shelter

By WGN News Desk and Sean Lewis

An Englewood shelter for homeless youth was gutted in a fire last month.

Anne Holcomb helps run the shelter and says it’s unknown what started the fire.

“That’s part of the struggle that we are in right now,” she told WGN News.  “The fire marshal wasn’t able to determine the cause of the fire and the facility had been closed for several hours when the fire broke out.”

The shelter opened nearly a year and a half ago and gave homeless youth a place to sleep, store belongings and get them on a better path.

LINK to the WGN video report

For now, those in charge are looking for a temporary facility and  donations of beds, bedding, towels and toiletries.  It’s a monumental task as an organization that gives support now looks for its own.

“Our washer and dryer melted, our stove, our refrigerator …everything’s melted and gone,” Holcomb said.

The shelter does have insurance but because the cause is still being determined, it’s not paying on the claim.  Unity Parenting, which runs this shelter, has set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise enough in donations to open a temporary shelter.


Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: New homeless shelter for young people aims to fill gap

By Mark Brown, columnist

The bright-eyed staff of Covenant House was assembled early one morning last week and set to get to work helping homeless young people.

Their new facility — a drop-in daytime shelter inside Lawson House, the former YMCA building at 30 W. Chicago Ave. — had just opened for business.

It is the first entry into Chicago for Covenant House International, one of North America’s largest providers of youth homeless services, and except for a glitch with the time clock, everything seemed ready.

There was a kitchen to serve breakfast and lunch, lockers for storage of personal belongings, a computer lab, showers and quiet spaces for an array of counseling services.

Maybe more important, the young workers gave off a welcoming vibe, in keeping with the “open door, open intake policy” considered the organization’s hallmark.

The main thing missing was the homeless young people themselves, only a few of whom found their way to the location in the opening days.

That will change quickly as word gets out. We can help with that.

Unfortunately, Chicago has no shortage of homeless youth and no abundance of places to help them.

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization's new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization’s new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Last year’s annual city homeless census tallied 500 homeless individuals ages 16 to 24 living in shelters or on the street on a given day.

If you add in an estimate of those who are doubled up or “couch-surfing” in other people’s homes, that number grows to more like 2,000. Yet there are few organizations specifically working with the age group.

“I didn’t know so many people went through this,” said Jeremy Colon, 20, of Humboldt Park, who found out otherwise after his mom lost her job and they were evicted from their apartment and left homeless.

Now he’s got a room in what’s called a transitional housing program run by La Casa Norte. He knows others aren’t as lucky.

Among them is Marissa Avila, 20, who told me she is now staying in an overnight adult shelter after several months of sleeping beneath bridges, under porches and inside abandoned buildings.

The unmet need is what persuaded New York-based Covenant House, which says it serves 50,000 homeless youth at 30 shelters in the United States, Canada and Latin America, to make Chicago the site of its first new location in 17 years.

Covenant House Illinois will specifically target 18-to-24-year-olds, that difficult age when young adults must begin to find their own way in the world and sometimes falter.

Joseph Mole, the organization’s executive director, said many homeless youths have been thrown out of their homes, often because they are LGBTQ, involved in a gang or too old for foster care. Others are runaways or “throwaway” kids whose parents don’t fulfill their responsibilities.

“A lot of kids are fleeing situations that are not safe, such as an abusive family situation,” Mole said.

When they lose housing, they become more vulnerable to the predators who would enlist them in gangs, drugs or prostitution.

On the flip side, they also are at an age where they have a better chance to put their lives back on track if somebody can reach them in time to help them find their way.

All that many of them need is someone who will “walk alongside them,” show that they care and be their advocate, Mole said.

“When a kid realizes their dreams can still happen, you’re in a whole different ballgame at that point,” said Mole, a veteran of several local social service agencies.

There is one more important thing missing from Covenant House at this time. It has no overnight beds, which may be the greatest need.

That is expected to change when the organization opens a 20-bed interim housing shelter later this year at a to-be-determined location. Another 20 beds will be added at Lawson House following a planned renovation of the building.

The drop-in shelter is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Overnight shelters typically put their homeless guests out by 7 a.m., and the idea is to give the young people a safe place to go during the day.

Spread the word. There’s new help in town.

WBEZ: Chicago homeless encampment creates, enforces its own rules

By Odette Yousef

Louis “Abdul” Jones sweeps leaves from an Uptown viaduct below Lakeshore Drive on a cold January morning.

Jones, who lives beneath the Wilson Avenue overpass in a homeless encampment with 17 other people, pushes debris away from the tents as part of his job on the “cleaning detail.”

Jones said he has lived there for nine months, and the cleanings are just one of many roles he created as part of a governance system for this tent city. Everyone who lives here has to participate.

Each morning, someone in the group clears away the trash. Normally, they’d use brooms for the sweeping, but those were recently stolen, so Jones makes do with a small square of tarp.

“We’re trying to form some type of organized community where we work together, for however long we going to be here,” Jones said. “I designed it personally because I live here. They live here. We live here. We don’t want to live here.”

Jones said he and his tent city neighbors needed a way to keep their environment orderly, both for their own health and safety, and to discredit outsiders’ claims that the encampment might be a public nuisance.

“I came up with it one night, talked to everybody — what do you all think? Let’s do it,” he said. “It’s been that way ever since, two months now.”

The cleaning detail

Danny Collins donates packed lunches of hot dogs, chips and water to Carmen Sisto, head of the cleaning detail. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Several times every hour, well-meaning people come through the Wilson Avenue viaduct and drop off donated items.

Danny Collins, a South Side resident, pulled over and got out of his car to tell Jones he’d brought several packed lunches of hot dogs, chips and water. Jones followed protocol and called Carmen Sisto, head of the cleaning detail.


With hot food deliveries like this, Sisto accepts only enough for people who are already up and about. Any extras could attract rodents.

Jones pointed to a dead rat between lanes under the viaduct. He said they used to run along the viaduct walls and gnaw into the back of tents at night. Jones and Sisto effectively stopped that by laying down boards soaked in a toxic solution behind the tents.

“People don’t understand when they bring food, and they sit it down among the tents, (the rats) come,” Jones said. “Sometimes they come in hordes.”

Carmen Sisto serves as head of the cleaning detail. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Sisto assigns the daily cleaning duties to a different person each morning.

“Sometimes they don’t like it, but that’s alright,” Sisto said.

Jones said they’re also careful to recycle. The group collects their empty propane tanks, in particular, in empty milk crates that someone drives by to pick up.

With non-perishable donations, such as clothing, blankets, hygiene products and propane tanks for small heaters, Sisto keeps a tight control of inventory. He stocks items in three storage tents.

“I lock everything up in tents with padlocks on them,” Sisto said.“If someone needs something, we have no problem giving it to them,”

But if anyone in the community steals the communal supplies, there are consequences.

House meetings

Non-perishable supplies are kept in a storage tent secured with a padlock in the Wilson Avenue tent city. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

The cardinal rules of the Wilson Avenue viaduct community are don’t steal, don’t disrespect others in the tent city and don’t disrespect outsiders who pass through. Violations are taken up and discussed by the group.

“We have a house meeting, with the house elders,” Jones said.

Though Jones is 50 years old and the mastermind of this system, he’s not a house elder. The elders are two twenty-somethings who’ve been homeless at this location for two years — longer than anyone else in the group.

“No matter what we decide, the house elders got the last word,” Jones said. “If it’s an infraction that will bring about CPD or somebody gets hurt, then we put it to a vote.”

In extreme cases, Jones said, they will kick someone out of the community, escorting that person out from the viaduct with his or her tent and belongings.

The group also holds house meetings to reach consensus on which supplies they most need.

“People that come down here and bring us clothes, we tell them we don’t need clothes, that we have enough of it. And we tell them we need propane,” said William Brown, one of the house elders. “The people that bring clothes down here, they come back and bring us propane heaters and make sure that we’re good.”

Security detail

William Brown, one of the house elders, shows the propane tanks community members rely on for heat in the Wilson Avenue tent city. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

“Every neighborhood deserves some type of comfort at night,” said Jones, fiddling with a small, blue two-way radio. “This is how we monitor at night.”

The group has three radios that Jones and two other security detail members keep. He said they switch off two-hour patrol shifts, watching everyone and everything that comes near the viaduct.

“One goes in, gets warm, another one comes out,” he said. “If they hit that call button like that, we’ll know it’s a call from one of the security team, and if we get that call from the security team, everybody that’s on deck comes out.”

Jones said night is when tent sleepers — and their possessions — are most vulnerable to people who come through to cause trouble or to steal. But the community still maintains a welcoming posture to anyone who needs a place to sleep. They keep a couple of unoccupied tents stocked with blankets for newcomers.

Women’s crew

Shenise Cottreau leads the tent city’s women’s crew with another of the female residents. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

“If a female comes down who don’t have no place to go, we give them blankets, a little tent for the night, and we tell the men we did that,” said Shenise Cottreau, the 20-year-old who leads the tent city’s women’s crew with another of the female residents.

She said they make sure women who come to the tent city have food, and they distribute any female-specific donations, such as tampons.

Cottreau said she’s been homeless for three years, and used to sleep in parks and on sidewalks in Uptown. She said the Wilson viaduct tent city is the first place she has felt secure. She described the community as a family.

“We fight, we argue. We say s— to each other we don’t mean,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we still combine. Because out here makes it to where you have no choice but to really combine.”

“We’re trying to get out of here”

A tent under the Wilson viaduct has a crate in front of it for recycling propane tanks. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

The organizational system has only been in place for two months, but Jones said it’s made a big difference in how clean and safe the viaduct feels.

The strict rules, in part, account for the relatively few tents in this encampment, Jones said. If someone is removed, he said, they often go to the viaduct just north of them, on Lawrence Avenue, where tents are crammed against each other on both sides of the street.

Jones said his knack for organizing and delegating came from his time in prison.

“I was a young, wild little boy. I did all the stuff kids did, went to jail, went to prison, all that stuff,” he said. “And you learn in those certain structures, prison and controlled environments, you learn stuff like this.”

After prison, Jones applied his logistical skills while working in shipping and receiving for a large corporation. But rent on his Uptown apartment was hiked, forcing him out onto the streets. After that, Jones said keeping a job was nearly impossible.

Jones said the system at the viaduct keeps his skills sharp, but it also takes up all his time. He said he would rather be working.

“When all is said and done, with little bitty things that I’ve tried to enact, it’s working a little bit,” he said. “But the thing is, I don’t want people to think, hey, we’re trying to live down here. We’re trying to get out of here. And until we get out of here, this is what we’ve have to do.”

Chicago Lawyer: Helping homeless teens digitally


When homeless youths need help, Graham Bowman hopes a new app can help them find it.

Bowman, 29, is one of five staff attorneys at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Law Project, which runs a series of mobile legal clinics in shelters, schools and health clinics frequented by homeless youth.

The Law Project partnered with The Young Invincibles and, funded by the Visiting Nurses Association Foundation, designed a GPS-enabled mobile app that will help homeless 15- to 24-year-olds locate the services they need in places they can access.

CL: When I hear “homeless youth,” what should I be picturing?

GB: A typical situation you might have is a young person who is bouncing from friends’ house to friends’ house to distant relatives’ apartment and who really has no home and has never had any permanent nighttime residence. They can spend a month in a shelter and then an opportunity might present itself to stay in a crowded apartment with friends and then that would fall apart and then they’re back at the shelter. So these situations can be really unstable.

One thing that I’ve seen recently in the last couple years is youth that will identify an abandoned building, like an abandoned house somewhere in the city, so you’ll have a lot of youth kind of squatting there for a period of time.

CL: How did you become involved in the app?

GB: A lot of my [Law Project] clients were used to just going to emergency rooms for health care, so even after they got Medicaid [in the 2014 Affordable Care Act expansion] they would still just keep going to the emergency room. A lot of my clients weren’t really aware of other family or qualified health center clinics around them that would be a better fit for their needs.

The shelters themselves never really had any kind of good resources for navigating those problems. In one instance the shelter wasn’t even really aware there was a family clinic three blocks away. I think all of that just came from the fact that the homeless population as a whole but also homeless youth had been relying on these safety net providers like emergency rooms for so long that there wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the community about what other services were available.

CL: Tell me about the app.

GB: [In a meeting with VNA Foundation and The Young Invincibles] one idea that we had was that if both homeless youth and case workers at shelters — or just any social worker that really encounters this population — had a discrete, curated app with resources that were specifically relevant to homeless youth, it would do a lot of good.

One thing I’ve seen in my work is a lot is that a lot more youth have smartphones or access to smartphones than you would think. They might not have the data plan but they certainly access apps on the internet when they have access to Wi-Fi.

We had a small grant from VNA Foundation to really just explore this, and talk to providers and talk to youth if it was something they felt would be useful. And the answer just came back as a resounding “yes” from everybody we talked to.

Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Mitchell: Jesse Webster – halfway to freedom

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, walks out of The Salvation Army Freedom Center on Sept. 26, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, walks out of The Salvation Army Freedom Center on Sept. 26, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Third in a 4-part series

By Mary Mitchell, columnist

In commuting Jesse Webster’s life sentence, President Barack Obama gave the 48-year-old Chicago-area man a second chance at life.

It was “one of the most precious gifts a human being could give another,” according to Webster.

After more than two decades in prison, and then five months at a Salvation Army halfway house on the Southwest Side before being totally free with his Sept. 26 release, Webster was desperate to get on with his life.

He found out quickly it wouldn’t be easy.

Webster had been on the street only a few weeks when we met at my office. He was still worried something could go wrong and he’d end up back in a cell.

So was his family. When Webster told his brother Lee he was taking public transportation to get downtown, Lee nixed that idea.

“What if something happens?” his brother told him. “What if the bus breaks down? I’m going to get you an Uber.”

Webster kept a close eye on his watch throughout our meeting.

“It is really annoying,” he told me. “They release you and got you on a short leash. I have a job interview on Friday, and they told me they only got three hours for it.

It was the first time we had sat down face-to-face. He was shorter than he looked in photos showing him in prison garb, staring directly into the camera. In those, there was an intensity and also sadness in his face.

Now, that sadness was gone. But the intensity was still there.

Jesse Webster, whose prison sentence to life without parol for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by President Barack Obama, sits down for a conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times, May 17, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Meeting with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell in May, Jesse Webster worried that if he got back to his halfway house late, “They can charge me with escape.” | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“If I am late, they can charge me with escape,” he said, explaining why he was so anxious. “The worst thing of all is if I get out on clemency and I am late and get charged with escape.”

After the interview, I drove him back to the halfway house. We stopped at a Popeyes on the way. The anxiety was still there.

“The first time I don’t get back on time,” he said, “they’re going to put a monitor on my leg.”

He was free. But freedom still felt elusive. And even after facing far worse for more than two decades, the restrictions now were a burden.

It irked him that a residential assistant at the halfway house had reprimanded him for stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts without permission even though the Dunkin’ Donuts was right on the corner.

“I was two hours early, but they say you can’t deviate,” he said. “They call it a halfway house. But you only get 20 percent of freedom.”

In prison, Webster had developed a habit of putting his most urgent thoughts on paper. The habit stuck with him. In an essay he emailed to me, Webster complained that in the halfway house he was constantly being reminded he was “still in prison.”



In prison, Jesse Webster had developed a habit of putting his most urgent thoughts on paper. The habit stuck with him when he got out.



“Most residents are familiar with being looked upon with a disparaging eye from prison staff,” he wrote.

“However, to hear such words from the very person, outside the prison walls, who is assigned to guide and motivate a resident into wanting to be a productive citizen once they have been released from prison creates a bad omen.”

He expressed disappointment that halfway house residents weren’t allowed to have devices with internet access.

“The resident was denied an opportunity because he or she did not have access to the way the world communicates in today’s society,” he wrote.

Richard Hart, a spokesman for the Salvation Army halfway house, declined to comment on Webster’s complaints. Hart said the “residential re-entry” program that the Salvation Army operates for male and female former federal prisoners in Cook, DuPage, Will and Kane counties under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons covers job readiness, resume preparation, online resume preparation, mock job interviews, money management and life skills and includes consultations with case managers.

Webster, who while in prison had taught re-entry workshops for other inmates, wasn’t impressed by what was offered by the Salvation Army.

“Like I never had a job,” he said. “There are a lot of guys like me that want to do the right thing. But if you don’t give them any opportunity to learn the skills to present themselves — soft skills, like how to use the computer — that is a challenge right there for a person who has been in prison. It is too easy to go back to your old life.”

Webster was particularly perturbed he couldn’t get a pass to spend Mother’s Day with his mother. It would have been his first with her in two decades.

Though free, Webster wasn’t having much fun. He wasn’t going out partying, he wasn’t hanging with old friends, and he wasn’t dating. What he did know to do to help him cope was to exercise.

“I have to go run just to balance out,” he said.

As soon as he was released from the hallway house, Webster planned to move in with his brother Lee and sister-in-law Tanesha.

“It was just adding another family member to the home,” Tanesha told me.

Webster was luckier than many leaving prison. It doesn’t help that for people with criminal backgrounds, the Chicago Housing Authority has a three-year wait before someone coming out of prison can get into public housing and a five-year wait to be able to get Section 8 housing.

Jonathan Holmes. | Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Jonathan Holmes | Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“You can’t find housing right away, and many people end up homeless,” said Jonathan Holmes, a policy expert with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The organization has a pilot housing program that allows re-entry providers to recommend clients for housing without them having to go through a wait period and is currently working with the CHA and the Housing Authority of Cook County to improve their policies on providing housing access.

Meanwhile, organizations like St. Leonard’s Ministries, which provides emergency housing for up to 40 men at its St. Leonard’s House, and 18 women at Grace House, both on the West Side, are trying to take up the slack.

“They come to St. Leonard’s because they don’t have any other place to go,” said Erwin Mayer, its executive director. “Some have been in prison a long time and are estranged from their families. And, in some cases, the family is engaging in activities that they don’t want to be a part of.”


Webster was so eager to leave the halfway house for good in September that, even before the sun came up, he had cleared out his belongings.

During his incarceration, Webster developed high blood pressure. The Salvation Army halfway house referred him to a clinic. But his medical bills, which the state was supposed to cover, hadn’t been paid in light of the state’s continuing budget stalemate.

Now, he was getting past-due notices for the medical treatment he received while in the halfway house’s custody.

“I’m getting mail about delinquent medical bills where they are trying to mess up my credit,” Webster told me in September. “They told me, ‘We’ll get it paid, but it’ll probably go on your credit.’ ”

Webster was frustrated. “This is a recipe to set you back,” he said.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to discuss Webster’s specific complaints. But a spokesman confirmed the federal prisons agency generally authorizes routine medical services, including medications, and later reimburses the costs of the services.

Webster also felt it was unfair for the halfway house to keep 25 percent of the gross income he earned from a job he had landed.

“I’m just coming home from doing a 21-year stretch,” he said. “I don’t have anything. How do you expect me to succeed if I can’t save any money?”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the halfway house’s residents are required to make “subsistence” payments each payday but said the fee can be waived for indigent residents.

So Webster asked for a waiver.

“I still got to pay for the bus for work,” he said. “I’ve got to feed myself. And I have to wear clothes. We are not asking for a silver spoon. We are asking for an opportunity.”

He sees his experience at the halfway house as “arrested freedom.”

“Arrested freedom surfaces,” he said, “when ex-offenders are hindered and deprived of necessary tools to seize opportunities beneficial for everyday life.”

To read the full series, click here.

WTTW, Chicago Tonight: Illinois’ black unemployment rate highest in the nation

By Reuben Unrau

While U.S. unemployment is at its lowest point in years, a new report shines a light on a racial gap that’s especially prominent in Illinois.

For the 15th month in a row, Illinois has the nation’s highest unemployment rate among African-Americans, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

In an analysis of third quarter data, Illinois’ black unemployment rate stood at 14.2 percent, according to the EPI. Nationwide, unemployment for African-Americans was 8.4 percent.

The report, which analyzes unemployment rates by state and ethnicity, found a prevailing divide along racial lines despite overall employment improvements since the recession. In Illinois, the white-black unemployment gap is especially wide. While nationally, African-Americans are unemployed at 2.1 times the rate of their white counterparts, blacks in Illinois are unemployed at a rate nearly three times higher than whites.

“When unemployment decreases at a national level, we have to break it down by race,” said Janelle Jones, author of the report. “Saying simply that unemployment is down is really leaving behind entire communities who have barely recovered since the Great Recession.”

In an analysis of the EPI report, Michael Lucci, vice president of nonprofit think-tank the Illinois Policy Institute, argues that Cook County’s recent ordinance to increase the minimum wage to $13 per hour has hurt employment prospects for African-Americans.

“These laws effectively ban job opportunities that might otherwise employ young black men and women in the Chicago area,” Lucci writes. “The first solution is to stop digging a deeper hole with minimum wage hikes and roll back the misguided minimum wage hikes in Chicago and Cook County.”

Jones, however, says that African-American workers have been largely impacted by jobs in the manufacturing and construction sector which have failed to return to pre-recession levels. She also points to another EPI report that finds “no significant evidence that job losses in the post-2007 period were driven by federal minimum wage increases.” Institutions with better wages, and more worker protections and unions, Jones says, prove to be more stable for African-Americans.

“If the only way we can employ African-Americans is through low-wage jobs, that is a problem,” she said. “We can either design an economy that only employs minorities at low wages, or we can design an economy that raises the floor and let’s everyone have some bargaining power and a living wage.”

Unemployment is one of the key issues addressed in the Chicago Urban League’s “Blueprint for an Equitable Chicago,” a 10-year agenda to improve conditions for the city’s African-American population. The plan emphasizes education as the foundation for future economic success.

Shari Runner, CEO and president of the Chicago Urban League, is specifically critical of the state’s education funding mechanism that relies heavily on school districts’ property taxes. A 2015 Education Trust report reveals that Illinois has the nation’s largest funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty districts, with the highest poverty districts in the state receiving nearly 20 percent less funding than districts with the lowest poverty levels.

“We know that there is a brain drain that eventually leads to a job drain,” said Runner. “These current outcomes are long-term and reflect the investments that the state of Illinois has decided to make, specifically in mind, against education and deeply rooted in race.”

Crain’s Chicago Business: On a cold day, searching for ways to help Chicago’s homeless


By Doug Schenkelberg

In Chicago this week, temperatures have dipped down to dangerously cold levels. When the weather reaches negative degrees and there is bone-chilling wind and snow, prolonged exposure can threaten health regardless of how many layers of clothing a person is able to put on. But it is particularly unsafe for the men, women and children experiencing homelessness on Chicago’s streets.

With over 35,000 individuals in Illinois using the state-funded shelter system in 2015, we know that this threat is widespread.

Every year, people ask us at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless how they can help homeless individuals they encounter.

I always say, if you are asked for help by someone on the street, you should not hesitate to give them money, food, blankets, etc., if you have the means and the desire. We do not think there is any downside to helping people in all of these ways.

But more importantly, make sure that whatever interaction you have is positive and respectful. If you can’t or don’t want to give anything, you can still make eye contact, smile and wish a person well. The key is to treat each person with the dignity and respect you would hope for if you were in that situation.

It is also important to speak up if you hear someone say something dismissive or derogatory about people who are homeless. Remind them that homelessness can hit anyone and those without homes are individuals with backgrounds and stories and dreams and ambitions. They need the same love and support we all do in order to make it through each day.

Beyond immediate support, there are other ways to give that can have a lasting impact. Find organizations that do direct outreach to those experiencing homelessness on Chicago’s streets and provide permanent housing options. You can find resources here that identify nonprofits active in this arena in Chicago.

Finally, keep in mind that homelessness does not just exist when it is cold. It is an issue 365 days a year. People do not live on the street because that is where they prefer to be. They live there because they do not have access to the permanent affordable housing they need. At a time when we should be investing more in both the housing and the supportive services—mental health services, job training, health care—people need to reach their potential, our state is failing to meet its current obligations.

Decision-makers need to know that this issue matters to you, that our state and our city should strive to be the best version of ourselves and adequately fund the programs those experiencing homelessness need to not only survive but thrive.

Specifically, with our state budget in disarray, the governor needs to hear from constituents that he needs to adequately fund homeless programs. We urge you to call him at 217-782-0244 and tell him to make addressing homelessness a priority.

Any and all these actions can make a difference. Let’s work together this holiday season and beyond to make homelessness a thing of the past.

Doug Schenkelberg is executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which advocates and organizes to prevent and end homelessness.

WTTW Chicago Tonight: Bitter cold especially challenging for chronically homeless

By Brandis Friedman

For some months now, controversy has been brewing over several homeless encampments under Lake Shore Drive viaducts. As the temperatures drop, advocates are even more concerned about the people living there.

Over the weekend, when we not only had temperatures below zero but also a few inches of snow, there were about 38 people living under the four viaducts on the north end of Lake Shore Drive.

That’s a relatively low number. A lot of people probably found places to stay indoors for the weekend. Homeless advocates say it’s normally closer to 75.

These tents are under Lake Shore Drive at Wilson, Lawrence and Foster avenues and Irving Park Road.

To keep warm, the folks there are layering up. Someone donated a tall industrial outdoor heater – like the ones you see at restaurants – and a few even have small propane heaters.

One resident who’s been living under the viaducts for nine months says a shelter isn’t an option for everyone, and the tents, while they provide little protection, are better than nothing.

“We’ve got to stay in ‘em because that’s the only shelter we have. We can’t sleep on the outside because wind chill factor drops to 30, the bone will freeze in 99 seconds,” said Louis Jones.

Shelters are typically at 95 percent full. Over the weekend when the weather has been atypically cold, that figure increased to about 99 percent.

When several dozen people are living in these spaces, without access to running water or restrooms, lots of trash and waste can accumulate. So the city plans cleanings every other week. This is a huge inconvenience for the folks living there because they have to pick up their tents and all of their belongings, including whatever donated food, shoes, water and blankets they have.

But when temperatures are this cold, advocates are more concerned than usual, because to do all of that in this cold can be dangerous.

The city does have to give the residents a week’s notice (see photo above), but advocates say the frequent cleanings have, in some cases, amounted to harassment.

“Treat people with dignity and respect,” said Doug Schenkelberg of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s not to say that cleanings can never happen … but to really balance the needs of these individuals and the reality that they’re living in, with whether or not cleaning should be done.

“The items that they have here are portable … but they’re set up in this situation,” said Schenkelberg. “They have a tent up, they have their things in the tent. It’s not easy to break it all down; move it. And whenever they do that, it just makes things that much harder.”


The city says while they can’t stop the cleanings, they have agreed to not use power washers, so the area isn’t wet after the cleaning, when residents move back in with their tents and belongings.

In April, the city started a pilot program to house the chronically homeless living in this area. That program was able to get about 60 people off the street and into permanent housing. They’re still working on about 15 more folks from that original group of 75.

Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler says her department has taken some lessons from a similar program to house homeless veterans, and they may be ready for the next step in finding housing for the chronically homeless.

“I think that we feel, as a department, that we have done enough pilots, and with the mayor’s support now we’re ready to take some of those lessons and expand them system wide,” said Butler.

“So, for example: One of the things we’re currently working to do is to get a by-name list of all of our chronically homeless people in the city of Chicago, so that, like with veterans, we would know who they are by name and could really then dig deep into what combination of housing and supports do they need to be successful.”

And the Northside Housing Shelter, located in the Preston Bradley Center on Lawrence Avenue, is slated to close at the end of this week.

Advocates are concerned some of those folks will end up joining the tent encampments when that happens.

A word about donations: Some of the folks under the Lawrence Avenue viaduct tell us they’ve received so many donations over the weekend, they now have more than they can use – some food and water freezes.

The city suggests donating to shelters and nonprofits, and allowing them to distribute goods. At the same time, advocates don’t oppose giving donations directly to the homeless, but recognizes the folks in the encampments may have received a lot of support lately because of the news coverage.

WBEZ: Uptown shelter struggles to transition last residents before closing

By Odette Yousef

A men’s homeless shelter on Chicago’s North Side is scheduled to close days before Christmas, and staff members are reckoning with the reality that many participants lack options as the weather turns dangerously cold.

North Side Housing and Supportive Services’ Interim Housing Program for Men, at the Preston Bradley Center in the Uptown neighborhood, aims to close its doors for good Dec. 23. The service provider had hoped to transition each of the program’s 72 residents to new housing a full week before the closing.

“If I sit up here and grieve, my mind will be telling me to pull me down,” said Darren Henderson, who was among the last men staying at the transitional housing program.


Three former residents of the shelter, from left: Jeremy Humbracht, Darren Henderson and Philip Machar. (Paula Friedrich and Cate Cahan/WBEZ)


Henderson, who he will move to another interim housing shelter in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side, credits the Uptown program with helping him turn his life around after he got out of prison in 2013.


Henderson, 53, now works a full-time job at a plastic housewares company in suburban Elk Grove Village. He said he is glad he will have a place to stay and that it will be close to public transit.

But he will be losing the case manager who has helped him.

“I’ll have to start all over again,” Henderson said. “Like, introducing myself and sitting down and talking to that person again.”


Current and former residents line up for food at a farewell luncheon the shelter hosted. The fare included chips and an assortment of holiday desserts. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)


The shelter held a farewell luncheon this month for current and former residents. Visitors grabbed sandwiches and chips, and perused a table of free items that staff were giving away, including socks, soap and towels.

“We’re closing, so we’re getting rid of all of our items that we had in my office and in my supervisor’s closet,” said case manager Ava Williams.

In another room, the men got free haircuts.

Jeremy Humbracht stopped in for a trim. Just three days earlier, he lived at the shelter, but staff found him his own apartment.


Jeremy Humbracht gets a haircut as part of the shelter’s farewell luncheon for current and former residents. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)


Humbracht said he is still trying to make sense of the shelter’s closing.

“This place meant hope,” he said. “Things were looking kind of bleak for me for a little while, and… as soon as I got here, things started looking up and everything started falling into place.”

The program was unable to raise about $100,000 in private money it needed to qualify for $400,000 in public funds, which make up the bulk of its budget.

“There are several shelters in Uptown,” said Martin Sorge, executive director of Uptown United, an organization that works with businesses and nonprofits to facilitate economic development in that neighborhood. “It is a hard thing to raise money for, and they’re not the only ones who’ve faced a challenge.”

Sorge acknowledged that the visible homeless population has become a point of tension in the community over recent years, but said nobody is pleased to see a shelter close.

“We’re just really concerned for anyone who has to be living outside in the circumstances of the winter,” he said. “You don’t want anyone to ever have to live like that.”

Henderson said he is troubled that a city like Chicago cannot muster the resources to keep the Uptown shelter open.

“That’s showing me that people don’t care,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. They don’t care.”

Many residents and staff said the shelter was unusual in Chicago. While it aimed to help participants achieve their own housing within 120 days, it also afforded them an unusual degree of flexibility, they said. Many transitional housing programs in Chicago require participants to follow strict rules, such as mandatory check-out times each morning and sobriety requirements.

“We have Wi-Fi for the guys. We wash their clothes. They don’t have to get up and leave in the morning,” said resident aide Sherman McGee. “They actually can sit in here all day if they want to — every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”


Paula Friedrich/WBEZ


McGee added that the shelter welcomed participants regardless of whether they were fighting substance abuse issues.

The loss of 72 transitional housing beds comes at a time when many advocates say resources for Chicago’s homeless are already inadequate.

“There hasn’t been an increase in the amount of money that they receive for providing services to homeless folks since 2012,” said Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “And every year they’re asked to do more with effectively less money.

According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing beds for adults in Chicago has not changed much over the last decade, from 2,875 in 2007 to 2,854 in 2016. Over that same period of time, the federal “point-in-time” count of homeless individuals in Chicago also has remained relatively flat, dropping from 5,979 in 2007 to 5,889 in 2016.

But McMenamin said the federal number may drastically undercount Chicago’s homeless population.

A 2014 to 2015 coalition estimate, which included individuals “doubling-up” in the homes of other family or friends due to hardship, estimated that as many as 125,848 Chicagoans were homeless. Additionally, McMenamin said looking simply at the number of beds over time does not tell the full story about available shelter for the homeless.

“Where are those beds? Are they best located to serve the people who need them?” she said.


Cots at the shelter were stacked against a wall every morning and pulled out in the evening for use. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)


Richard Ducatenzeiler, executive director of Northside Housing and Supportive Services, said it becomes “harder and harder” to find shelters on the North Side.

Ducatenzeiler said his organization, which also manages permanent supportive housing units all over the city, rarely finds new units available on the North Side because rents are too high. But there’s a risk in placing people in available units on the West and South sides, where they may be farther away from their support networks and unable to access public transit.

“A lot of times we’ve had participants actually vacate their units and leave to go to a shelter that’s maybe on the North Side,” he said.

Ducatenzeiler said his organization has found new housing or shelter for 31 of the 72 men who were in the Uptown program.

Of the others, some have gone to the hospital, some are with family or friends. Others, he said, just stopped showing up, with no word as to where they have gone.

Cate Cahan contributed to this report. Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. 

ABC 7: Girl, 5, raises $208 for Chicago homeless organization

Peninah at her hot cider stand.
Peninah at her hot cider stand.

By Leah Hope

A 5-year-old girl saved some of her chores money and this week delivered a jar with $208 cash to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, making her the organization’s youngest donor.

Peninah Feldman is a kindergartener at Chicago’s National Teacher’s Academy, where students learn about social justice and helping others.

A year ago, she came to understand that not everyone had a home, seeing people in tents and sad that they didn’t have a house.

“Her eyes have been opened at a young age. I think that homelessness in this city is not so hidden,” said Peninah’s mother, Anika Matthews-Feldman.

She told her mom that she wanted to donate some of her chores money to the homeless. She also added proceeds from her weekend hot cider stand to the total.

On Giving Tuesday, the charitable young girl inspires the spirit of the season.

“It was amazing. It was just fantastic to have someone so young care so much,” said Doug Schenkelberg, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.


The coalition and other non-profits look to private citizens to give what they can.

“That little bit is added to the $10 donation we get online, to the foundation that is nice enough to give us a grant. It all adds up,” Schenkelberg said.

And donations are important now more than ever.

“We’re living in a state where government funding is diminished greatly and nonexistent in some cases,” sad Kathleen Murphy, of Forefront.

Peninah, the young philanthropist, may not fully understand why her fundraiser got so much attention. But she hopes other kids might consider what they can do.

For now, helping the homeless is her philanthropy.

When asked what she wants, she said “to give them houses and things I have.”

“I just want her to be proud of her efforts and continue on,” her mother said.

To donate, visit ILgive.com