(Updated) As the Midwest braces for a polar vortex, Chicago officials promise extra outreach and shelter capacity to assist homeless people, knowing they face life-threatening conditions in harsh weather.
It’s proving a stark reminder that, as a prosperous city, we must do something substantial to end the homelessness that impacts more than 80,000 children, youth and adults in Chicago.
“The steps that the city of Chicago and its partners are taking to provide shelter and warmth to people experiencing homelessness in this weather are critical,” said Executive Director Doug Schenkelberg.
“I hope the sense of urgency that is being felt now continues past this moment, so that those in power put the funding in place to provide the permanent housing our city needs so that no one is forced to be homeless in any type of weather.”
City defends controversial tactics targeting homeless people, even as it opposes a measure to reduce homelessness by 35,000 in 10 years
Chicago officials should focus on adequately funding support for victims of homelessness, rather than concocting ploys to purge them from the public view, advocates said Tuesday, after a Cook County judge permitted the city to clear out viaducts used as shelter by homeless people under the guise of improving infrastructure.
On Friday, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Celia Gamrath dismissed a lawsuit arguing the city had unlawfully discriminated against homeless people in 2017 when it redesigned the sidewalks under two viaducts in the Uptown neighborhood in order to prevent them from sleeping there. The city demolished the encampments purportedly so it could convert the sidewalk space where they resided into bike lanes – a quest that deviated from its own conventions for transportation planning.
For the first 18 years of his life, the Englewood native managed to overcome the disenfranchisement plaguing his neighborhood: He graduated from Jones College Prep, becoming the first in his family to finish high school; started college at a historically black university in Memphis; and found a passion producing music. “I was on a high horse,” he proudly recalled.
No one could have predicted he’d be homeless by age 19…
…Niya Kelly, state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), says doubled-up living for young people tends to look like Rivers’ experience: “couch surfing,” “moving from place to place” — particularly at night — and not being guaranteed the same place to stay.
In 2016, there were more than 11,000 unaccompanied homeless youths ages 14 to 24 in Chicago, and 85 percent of them were living doubled-up, according to the most recent data from a CCH estimate…
…The fear of the unknown, of not knowing where they can go next, is a common feeling for homeless youths who are bouncing around or living doubled-up. Kelly says they often try to make themselves “as small as possible, or not eat as much food, or be as hospitable as possible to keep the peace” to be able to stay somewhere.
There’s a misconception, too, Kelly said, that having a roof over your head — however momentary it may be — is better than living on the street.
“You don’t know what a person has to do in order stay in a house that night,” she said, “so it’s not always better than living on the street. Some youths have to turn over their disability check or SNAP benefits (to the homeowner). Some girls get trafficked. Just because you’re going somewhere at night doesn’t mean you’re safe.”…
Victor Reed and his children spent nine months at a West Side shelter before moving into an apartment this summer.
It’s an experience that inspires his community spirit. While his family has their own home again, Victor volunteers with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and its new housing campaign, Bring Chicago Home.
“There are people behind me, people who are low on hope and don’t have resources,” says Victor. “I let my children be aware of the situations other people face and that homeless does not mean hopeless.”
The homeless residents of the Wilson and Lawrence viaducts are vowing not to quit after a Cook County judge delayed ruling on whether to dismiss their discrimination lawsuit against the city of Chicago.
The former encampments under Lake Shore Drive in Uptown were widely known as tent city. In this most recent lawsuit, filed in August of last year, the plaintiffs and their attorneys accuse the city of illegally targeting the homeless by concocting a plan to install bike lanes on the sidewalk, resulting in not enough space for them to reside in their makeshift tents.
“Regardless of today’s outcome, we are going to continue to fight the city when they choose to operate outside the law,” said Carol Ladape, lawsuit plaintiff and former tent city resident.
The dispute has been going on for years… Lawyers for the homeless contend the city’s own guidelines say placing the bike lanes in the street would be safer for everyone. They say the construction is a deliberate attempt to remove homeless people and is a violation of the Illinois Homeless Bill of Rights.
“We have also adequately plead discriminatory intent, after we get the ruling to decide how to proceed,” said Diane O’Connell, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless…
Community leaders, legislative allies, coalition partners, funders, donors, and staff of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless came together Dec. 6 to celebrate CCH victories. The 5:30 p.m. event was hosted at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, in its 10th floor ceremonial courtroom.
CCH honored seven people, including legislators and allies, as well as Urban Labs, Polk Bros. Foundation, and the Steering Committee of CCH’s HomeWorks coalition.
Each year CCH presents the Les Brown for Excellence in Public Policy Work. We honored the UChicago Poverty Lab and Health Lab for their report: Ending Family Homelessness: Understanding the Scale and Needs of Families Experiencing Homelessness in Chicago. The report cross-matched data from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the city’s homeless service system. The data showed the full scope of families living doubled-up in Chicago as well as demonstrating how doubled-up homelessness is a common pathway into staying in shelters. Their research has led to a much greater understanding and acceptance of this form of homelessness, not previously been recognized by the city.
LINCOLN SQUARE — Someone apparently forgot to tell the good people of Lincoln Square that big cities are supposed to be cold, heartless places.
Because neighbors’ concern for an elderly couple who is homeless has been the stuff of small-town caring and kindness.
It started with a social media post in early November to the Rockwell Neighbors Facebook page, a community hub for folks who live in the west-of-Western neck of Lincoln Square.
Jason Moy opened the discussion: “There is an older couple I’ve seen from time to time around Lincoln Square; they seem pretty well put together but are possibly homeless, and always pushing a whole bunch of suitcases around. I see them occasionally by the Western Brown Line entrance, or taking refuge from a rainstorm under a condo building awning, and most recently keeping warm under the L station heat lamps. Does anyone know their story, and how (or if) we can help them, especially as cold weather descends on us?”
Replies came quickly from others who had likewise seen the pair, including some who had interacted with the couple, either by hauling their bags for them or approaching the duo with offers of food. Piecing together information shared in the post’s comments, a narrative emerged: The two were husband and wife, and were indeed without a home. The man was in particularly poor health, and the couple was both proud and wary.
Crystal Nelson, manager of Ruff Haus Pets, situated just a couple of storefronts north of the Rockwell Brown Line station, was among those following the Facebook post.
She too had seen the couple and originally thought they were tourists as she watched them cross Western Avenue with their luggage. On spying them a second time, she realized their situation was far more desperate.
Nelson has a particular soft spot for older people. She lost her parents at an early age, so she grew up closer to her grandparents than most, even taking a leave from Ruff Haus in 2017 to care for her dying grandmother.
All of which explains, in part, why Nelson was the one who pushed the conversation toward concrete action.
“I feel like it’s all of our responsibility to help out,” she said of her decision to become involved.
Since Ruff Haus is well known among the area’s pet owners, and also the type of business residents readily recognize from their daily CTA commutes, Nelson figured people would trust her if she started a fundraiser for the couple.
Nelson set a goal of $500, expecting that within a week or two she’d have enough money to buy the couple warm winter coats. After sharing the fundraiser with the Rockwell Facebook group, she went to bed.
Nelson wouldn’t get much sleep that night — her phone kept beeping with donation notifications.
Within 12 hours, Nelson’s original target had been met and when she closed the fundraiser the next day, she’d collected nearly $1,000.
“I felt like I won the lottery. The support from everyone was awesome,” she said.
Nelson also became the point person for additional offers of assistance — from people volunteering to store the couple’s belongings to folks investigating the feasibility of occasionally putting the couple up at nearby motels.
“Everyone wants to help,” she said. “I literally just started a fundraiser. The whole neighborhood did this.”
With guidance from staff at Uncle Dan’s Lincoln Square shop, who also gave her a discount, Nelson was able to stretch the donated funds to buy a pair of parkas, gloves and socks, and still have money leftover. But how to get the items to the couple, the nature of whose plight meant they had no fixed address?
Nelson turned amateur sleuth, keeping an eye on Facebook for any sightings and also touching base with employees at CTA stations the couple typically frequented.
An “angel” at the Western Brown Line station, who’d been tracking the couple’s movements, took Nelson’s number and called her when the pair — named John and Mary — turned up at the Rockwell platform.
“She introduced us and I said, ‘There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood worried about you,’” Nelson said. “[Mary] was crying. She said they love the neighborhood and how generous everyone has been.”
The story could end here, with Nelson gifting the couple new coats and walking away. It doesn’t.
Thrown In The Deep End
Out of respect for the couple’s privacy, Nelson hasn’t pried much into John and Mary’s story, but she has learned they lost their home in May, and they’re petrified of shelters, out of fear of being separated from each other and their remaining possessions.
What John and Mary need, more than a coat on their backs, is a roof over their head. Setting the couple on the path to housing is Nelson’s next step.
Homelessness is a complex situation requiring a complex solution. Nelson realized she was out of her depth — she’s a retail store manager, not a social worker.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ve never done this before,” she said.
Just as she began to feel overwhelmed by the obligation she’d assigned to herself, she was pointed in the direction of North Center’s Common Pantry. As of this writing, Nelson was working to coordinate a meeting between John and Mary and the pantry’s program manager.
Stories like John and Mary’s haunt Margaret O’Conor, Common Pantry’s executive director.
“I can’t even conceptualize,” she said of the couple’s ordeal.
The elderly are among our society’s most vulnerable members for a variety of reasons, O’Conor said, including skyrocketing medical costs, the curtailing of pensions and other retirement benefits, and a lack of affordable housing.
According to the National Institutes of Health, over the next 20 years, the growth rate of the older population is going to be nearly double what it is today.
Chicago is no exception: In the 2010 Census, the city’s population of residents 65 and older was 277,000; by 2025 that number is projected to reach 388,000.
“This is exactly who we need to be concentrating on,” said O’Conor. “This is something that isn’t going to go away.”
While there are rapid response services to assist seniors, and the elderly are typically fast tracked for housing, seniors tend to be too scared or proud to ask for help, O’Conor said, and often their social networks are so limited, they’re unaware of available resources.
When seniors are placed in housing, that often means moving to a neighborhood that’s foreign to them — removed from their doctors, their friends, their routines — potentially landing in areas that lack services or are food deserts, said O’Conor.
“They’re thrown in the deep end,” she said. “That’s part of the problem with not having affordable housing in every neighborhood.”
What does this mean for John and Mary?
“We’ll do the best we can,” O’Conor said. “But they have to be willing to accept services and recommendations.”
So this tale’s happy ending remains up in the air. But for Nelson, her faith in humanity has been affirmed.
“I just feel like in a big city, the fact that everyone came together, it means we can all do something,” she said.
For immediate shelter, she recommended calling 3-1-1 to see if the city can match an individual with an opening.
The challenge with shelters is that in the case of couples like John and Mary, not all are set up for married people, and many aren’t designed for people with mobility issues, O’Connell said.
Pacific Garden Mission, for example, one of the largest shelters in the city, requires people to be fully ambulatory, capable of climbing stairs and hauling their own bags. “It’s unconscionable that should be a barrier to getting help,” O’Connell said.
Of primary importance, she said, is connecting individuals with a service provider, where they can be assessed for permanent housing. There are fewer than a dozen agencies in Chicago that handle assessments, click here for the list.
The Department of Family & Support Services operates six community service centers (which also serve as warming and cooling centers). These centers provide information on a range of resources related to housing, food, employment and more.
Chicago City Council has repealed the city’s panhandling ordinance, after three prominent advocacy groups sent letters in August to 15 Illinois cities to warn that panhandling bans are unconstitutional.
Letters were sent by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as part of a national campaign to reverse discriminatory and unconstitutional laws.
In addition to Chicago, letters were delivered August 28 to officials in Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Cicero, Danville, Decatur, East St. Louis, Elgin, Joliet, Moline, Oak Park, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana.
Chicago City Council quietly repealed its ordinance Nov. 14, notifying advocates two weeks later.
“Chicago’s panhandling ordinance was actively enforced, so this is an important victory for people in Chicago who panhandle as a means of a survival,” said Diane O’Connell, community lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “We have spoken to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness who have been ticketed or arrested for violating this ordinance – locked up or charged fines they cannot pay for nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. The city was forced to recognize that everyone has the right to ask for help.”
The August letters notified targeted communities that since 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court demanded closer examination of laws that regulate speech based on its content (Reed v. Town of Gilbert), panhandling ordinances were repealed or struck down by the courts in more than 55 cities.
The response across Illinois is impressive. In addition to Chicago, Aurora, Oak Park, Peoria, Urbana and Decatur also acted to repeal their regressive panhandling ordinances. Elgin and EastSt. Louis said they no longer enforce a ban. Cicero and Champaign have said they are examining their ordinances.
Carbondale, Danville, Joliet, Moline and Rockford have not responded to the August letter.
“We are pleased that Chicago and the other communities have acted in response to our warning in August,” said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU senior staff counsel. “Our Constitution does not permit a lower standard of protection for speech simply because the speaker is someone in need of assistance. We need the other communities to act with dispatch.”
“We hope that even Illinois communities that we did not send letters will take the opportunity to examine and repeal their panhandling ordinances.”
The letter to Chicago noted that the now-repealed ordinance served “no compelling state interest. Distaste for a certain type of speech, or a certain type of speaker, is not even a legitimate state interest, let alone a compelling one. Shielding unwilling listeners from messages disfavored by the state is likewise not a permissible state interest.”
Prior to a Friday, December 14 application deadline, the CCH Law Project will outreach to homeless students and parents interested in applying to the Chicago Public Schools’ magnet, charter, and selective enrollment schools.
Outreach sessions offering personal assistance and informational material include:
Tuesday, Dec. 4: Nicholson Technology Academy, 6006 S. Peoria St. (8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.)
Wednesday, Dec. 5: Charles W. Earle Elementary School, 2040 W. 62nd (8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.)
Wednesday, Dec. 12: Salvation Army Booth Lodge, 800 W. Lawrence Ave., (5 p.m. – 7 p.m.)