By Doug Schenkelberg
If you spend any time in Chicago’s Loop, you will encounter people grappling with homelessness. They may be looking to passers-by for help, or they may be simply trying to make it through their day. Because Chicago lacks enough shelter beds and permanent supportive housing to assist those in need, we see hundreds of people who make their lives on the streets of Chicago.
This month, Chicago Loop Alliance announced hiring two armed, private security guards to patrol a portion of the Loop. “Aggressive panhandling” is among the reported issues that these new guards will address on patrol. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has many concerns about the addition of armed guards to police downtown streets.
People coping with homelessness already experience high levels of harassment by some Chicago police officers. Homeless people are targeted, often accused of panhandling that is “aggressive”—an offense that can be ticketed—all in a push to drive them out.
Under the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless, people who are homeless have the right to move freely in public spaces. It is our fear, based on many years of working on this issue, that with this new program downtown harassment will increase, making it even harder for people trying to get by.
Homelessness is a complex issue. It impacts people struggling with extreme poverty and all too often managing trauma and mental health issues. Adding guns and lesser-trained security guards to that mix is a recipe for escalation. A situation that could and should be dealt with from a place of support could easily turn into something regrettable for everyone involved.
The sad fact that there are homeless people subsisting on Loop streets should lead to a public discussion on how we collectively solve homelessness. Loop Alliance did not reach out to homeless advocates for input on its decision to put armed guards on downtown streets. Had they talked with us, we would have pointed out that resources are better spent advocating for more affordable housing—the only true solution to homelessness.
Doug Schenkelberg is executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
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