Chicago Tribune: Bold plan for Chicago – no one left homeless

Even the most optimistic advocates know it’s a complex, costly concern

By Deborah L. Shelton

A little more than a decade ago, Chicago’s strategy for fighting homelessness mainly involved stopgap measures like pointing people to a temporary bed in a shelter and giving directions to a soup kitchen.

But then city officials, with the help of advocates, set about to better understand the needs of Chicago’s homeless population and offer services aimed at putting a permanent roof over their heads.

As a result, they say, the number of homeless people has not spiked despite a harsh economic recession. And now, as officials and advocates embark on a new seven-year plan to fight homelessness, they say they have a good shot at ending the problem altogether.

“We strongly believe that homelessness can be eliminated,” said Nonie Brennan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, “and we believe that we can be the first major city in the nation to do it, and do it well.”

Even the most optimistic acknowledge that it won’t be easy, given the complexity of the issue. Not all homeless people have the same needs.

It won’t be cheap, either; the city Department of Family and Support Services plans to spend almost $48 million on homelessness in 2013 alone. And the sluggish economy is a persistent worry.

Yet city officials say they can do it by marshaling a variety of strategies. For example, a struggling family about to lose an apartment might get help paying the rent. That’s cheaper than trying to help after they are homeless.

Officials want to assist more homeless young people so they don’t become the next generation of homeless adults and help homeless people find jobs so they can better afford stable housing.

The city is providing subsidies directly to landlords who agree to rent to people who are homeless and helping to fund development of low-income housing for the homeless, such as single-room occupancy buildings.

The most potentially controversial part of the plan involves finding housing for people with problems like alcoholism and drug addiction who might never be able to pay for it on their own.

Such help represents a major change in thinking, but advocates say the approach stands the best chance at moving the most hard-core homeless people off the streets — those who have been living for years under bridges and in other public places.

Alexandria Banks, who has been homeless for 21 years and has battled addiction throughout her adulthood, realizes some people might see her as a lost cause. But Banks says she wants to contribute to society.

“Me, myself, I cannot come up with enough money for deposits and rent for an apartment; I need help. I desperately need housing,” said Banks, 51, who earns money selling StreetWise newspapers and doing odd jobs at a Hyde Park taco restaurant. “I am willing to do whatever I have to do to get it (housing), work whatever program, work community service — whatever I have to do.”

Not everyone agrees that the city’s effort, however laudable, can end homelessness. 49th Ward Republican committeeman Suzanne Devane called the plan “more PR spin than an achievable goal.”

The services being offered don’t get to the root causes of homelessness, and not all of those problems can be fixed by government intervention, Devane said.

“Many adult homeless have substance abuse and mental health problems. It is questionable whether much can be done in the way of intervention that will enable these folks to be contributing members of society,” Devane said in a statement. “There needs to be some type of supportive housing available to those willing to use it. Many won’t.”

Population count

In 2002, Chicago was one of the first cities to sign on to a 10-year national plan aimed at ending homelessness.

The plan focused on three main strategies: preventing homelessness whenever possible, placing people who lost their homes back into housing quickly and providing services to help them become self-sufficient.

From 2005 to 2007, the number of homeless people declined, according to a “point in time” census the city conducts every other year during the last two weeks of January.

The count started to climb in 2009, but the 6,546 homeless people found in shelters and public places on a single night in January 2011 was still lower than the 2005 figure. This year’s census is still being analyzed.

Last year, as officials launched a new plan, they were encouraged in their efforts by success stories of people who have benefited from the new way of doing things.

Ashley Tutson, 26, had no place to live when she returned to Chicago from Memphis in 2010 with four children, but the idea of moving her young family into a short-term shelter terrified her. She came to the city to leave what she described as a volatile relationship.

“I already had the stereotype of shelters in my head — a huge room with a lot of beds and strangers coming in and out,” she said.

Instead she was referred to Madonna House, a shelter run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago that opened in 2009. Instead of basic cots, she and her children were led to a private area with their own bathroom.

“The sense of relief that day was ridiculous,” Tutson said. “All of my kids had a bed. I can’t tell you when all of them had their own bed before that. We sat in the room and looked at each other and smiled. We were safe and we were OK and we were somewhere that felt like home. It was life-changing.”

The family later transferred to Catholic Charities’ New Hope Apartments program, which provided Tutson rental assistance, job counseling and other services.

Tutson completed training as a patient care technologist and phlebotomist and saved enough money from working a temporary job to cover a couple of months of rent. Although she is still looking for permanent employment, Tutson said she is far better off than if she had stayed in a shelter for a few weeks and then been shown the door.

What comes first?

Despite the image of a homeless person as a single man who suffers from substance abuse or mental illness, the reality is more complex. About 25 percent of the homeless have serious mental illness and 38 percent have a substance abuse problem, said Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Some people have been pushed into homelessness after fleeing domestic abuse. Others have lost their jobs. Some are veterans. Many are working but earn too little to afford an apartment. There are families with young children as well as teenagers and young adults.

What they share is extreme poverty, Dworkin said. Chicago rents have skyrocketed since the 1980s, and it’s not uncommon for low-wage workers to spend most of their income on housing. “Any kind of small crisis can get them behind,” she said.

As officials and advocates developed their 10-year plan in 2002, they realized that some people would not become stable without receiving “wraparound” services such as education counseling, job training or treatment for addiction or mental illness. But they felt that those who were homeless needed a roof over their heads first.

Previously, the view had been that homeless people needed to solve their personal problems before they could expect help. But that approach didn’t seem to work, and officials concluded that it was unrealistic to expect someone to get sober while living under a bridge, to cite one example.

City officials redistributed resources to put more money into homelessness prevention and rental assistance programs. They also almost doubled the stock of permanent supportive housing, where wraparound services are provided. In November, a central referral system was launched that ranks individuals and families seeking such housing by their level of vulnerability and time spent homeless.

Maura McCauley, director of homeless prevention, policy and planning at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, said officials are “using our resources in a way that gets them to the people who need them the most.”   Prevention at a price

Serving up a menu of services to get people back on their feet comes with a big price tag. Family and Support Services budgeted almost $48 million for homeless services in 2013, up from about $43 million the previous year, according to spokesman Matt Smith.

But not everybody needs intensive services. Some just need an apartment they can afford or help with rent for a couple of months to get them over a rough patch. Advocates say preventing such people from becoming homeless in the first place saves money in the long term.

“It’s much more expensive for society to have people homeless and cycling through emergency rooms and the criminal system, etc., than to devote resources to get them on their feet,” said Ken Keibler, department director for New Hope Apartments.

“People given the right support can succeed,” said Kathy Donahue, Catholic Charities’ senior vice president of program development.

Yolanda Fields, chief program officer of adult services at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, said helping people get jobs that pay a livable wage will be key to ending homelessness.

“We had 105 people who (recently) completed our job readiness program and 50 were placed in employment,” Fields said. “But the problem is, of the 50 who were placed, less than 10 percent were making over $10 an hour. They’re being employed as home health workers, security work, janitorial work — occupations that don’t pay a lot.”

Dworkin said employment services remain a shortcoming. “Our first 10-year plan didn’t have a focus on employment, so I don’t think we have a really good array of services,” she said.

Another problem is that the state and city are reacting to budget pressures by cutting back social service programs for people who could be at risk of homelessness, such as the mentally ill.

“It’s something we struggle with a great deal,” said Brennan of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. “For every housing program we can bring on line, we need our sister agencies and the other programs that make up the social safety net to be in place.”

Although the city has been trying to move homeless people into permanent housing, there still have to be enough shelter beds for those who need them, said Jim LoBianco, executive director of StreetWise Inc., a local social service organization serving the homeless.

“One of the biggest challenges is the number of nonprofit groups that offer shelter beds that are closing their doors,” said LoBianco, who was deputy commissioner in charge of homeless services under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Dworkin said the new plan includes specific targets that allow planners to measure outcomes and keep the plan on track. But if the city cannot follow through for lack of money, the effort could fall apart.

Although the city’s plan has achieved some success, not enough permanent housing has been created, she said. An evaluation of the plan, she noted, found that a large number of people were still stuck in the shelter system.

“We need a lot more housing to be successful,” Dworkin said.

Despite the challenges, Chicago is well ahead of most cities in ending homelessness, said Philip Mangano, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an independent agency within the federal executive branch.

Chicago “ranks in the top tier,” said Mangano, who now heads the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, based in Boston. “I applaud Chicago for moving forward.”  

demographic of homeless people (2)

7th year in a row: Zumiez donates hundreds of jackets & winter wear

Most of us take for granted being able to put on a warm coat before we step outside this winter, but imagine if you couldn’t?

Thanks to the sports outerwear retailer Zumiez, CCH organizers have begun distributing warm jackets and winter wear to hundreds of homeless boys and teens, men and women with whom we work in Chicago. Please note: Coats are being distributed during shelter outreach by organizers, and not from CCH’s office.

CCH Organizing Staff (from left): Jim Field, Dollie Brewer, Rachel Ramirez, and Hannah Willage

CCH is very grateful for Zumiez generous support – Zumiez’s 7th annual shipment to CCH totaled 49 boxes. There are more than 300 jackets, 150 hoodies, 120 blankets, 180 caps and 72 pairs of both socks and gloves.  Continue reading 7th year in a row: Zumiez donates hundreds of jackets & winter wear

The Education Committee kick-starts its outreach program

The Homeless Education Committee at CCH held its second meeting on Monday to pave the way for the future course of action to ensure the rights of homeless students and their families.

CCH has done work around education and homeless families since 1997, but the work of the Education Committee is the first effort that has come out of grassroots organizing. Organizers have spent the last year in one-on-one meetings with parents, students, and educators. Eight listening sessions have been conducted at high schools, social service agencies, and shelters. Through this work organizers have identified leaders on the issue of education for homeless students. Now the committee is  beginning to shape the campaign that the committee will work to improve homeless students’ access to a quality education.  Continue reading The Education Committee kick-starts its outreach program

CCH supports the Chicago Teachers Union, its stand on issues affecting homeless students

Students coping with homelessness need strong and stable schools with adequate support services.  During the 2011/2012 school year, the Chicago Public Schools served 17,255 homeless students — children and teens whose hardships had them living doubled-up with others, or in shelters, motels and other temporary housing situations.  Continue reading CCH supports the Chicago Teachers Union, its stand on issues affecting homeless students

Reentry Committee meets with CHA to propose Housing Choice pilot program

CCH’s Reentry Project organizes and advocates for access to housing for individuals with criminal backgrounds. Last Friday, the Reentry Project Committee had a major breakthrough in our collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority, during a meeting with its CEO, Charles Woodyard.

From left to right, Bob Dougherty, Michael Peoples, Troy Harden, Pastor Charles Austin, Tony Lawery, Julie Dworkin, Pam Ward, Marie Claire Tran and Rachel Ramirez.

The Reentry Committee proposed a pilot CHA program that would offer a Reentry Provider Housing Certificate. This certificate would allow experienced reentry service providers to recommend individuals with criminal backgrounds for a Housing Choice Voucher. These select individuals would be able to proceed through the application process without barriers based on criminal background. Providers would grant certificates selectively to those who show great dedication to their community reentry process.  Continue reading Reentry Committee meets with CHA to propose Housing Choice pilot program

Governor signs human trafficking bill

I am excited to report that Gov. Pat Quinn signed a human trafficking reform bill into law – House Bill 5278 — on August 4. The state law clarifies the definition of sex trafficking to include traffickers who use coercive schemes and tactics to control and intimidate their victims. The clearer definition will allow for more effective prosecution of traffickers, which will result in greater protection for their prostituted victims.
This legislation marks the third bill in three years to be passed as part of End Demand Illinois, a campaign headed by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
As a partner in the End Demand campaign, CCH’s Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (PART) led the legislative advocacy to pass HB 5278. I keep a constant presence in Springfield during the legislative session, collaborating with allies and explaining the importance of the bill to legislators. Community organizer Rachel Ramirez works with prostitution survivors, bringing the women to Springfield to meet with legislators and testify at committee hearings.  Continue reading Governor signs human trafficking bill

CPS served 17,255 homeless students, a 10.7% increase

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) served a record number of homeless students in the school year that ended in June.

CPS identified 17,255 homeless students in 2011-12, a 10.7% increase from the prior year’s record, according to its office of Students in Temporary Living Situations.

The homeless enrollment included 3,005 unaccompanied youth – teens who were homeless without a family or guardian yet attending school.  Continue reading CPS served 17,255 homeless students, a 10.7% increase

WLS 890AM: Demonstrators Want G8 Money to go to Poor

March 6, 2012

Story by WLS 890AM reporter John Dempsey

CHICAGO (WLS) – Now that Chicago is not hosting the G8 Economic Summit, a group of community activists is calling for the money that was to be spent on the meeting, to go towards helping the poor.

About two dozen people demonstrated this morning in front of the State Street headquarters of the economic development group World Business Chicago, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel has designated to raise $65 million to pay the costs of the summit.

Protester Charles Jenkins told WLS that Chicago’s poor need that money to rebuild their communities:

“We feel that that money should go to help make our community safer, by creating some jobs that can take people off the streets”.

Jenkins and other activists tried unsuccessfully to secure a meeting with WBC officials. Despite the White House decision to move the G8 meetings to Camp David Maryland, Chicago will still host a meeting of NATO world leaders May 20th to 21st at McCormick Place.


(WLS 890AM Photo)

World Business Chicago: Move G-8 funds to jobs in Chicago neighborhoods

Good jobs are key to ending homelessness. That’s why CCH joined allies in the Grassroots Collaborative this morning to urge World Business Chicago and Mayor Emanuel to establish a $100 million Neighborhood Jobs Trust.

Their idea is to fund a Jobs Trust for Chicago by reallocating business donations given for social events at the G-8 Summit. Before it was announced Monday that the G-8 Economic Summit would no longer meet here this May, World Business Chicago raised more than $50 million. The non-profit was established at the behest of Mayor Emanuel.  Continue reading World Business Chicago: Move G-8 funds to jobs in Chicago neighborhoods