Chicago Sun-Times: City to privatize some homeless transport services and boost programs for youths

By Fran Spielman

Chicago will privatize overnight transport services for the homeless and use the $1.7 million savings to reduce “youth homelessness” that impacts more than 17,000 Chicago Public School students living “doubled up” with other families.

Last year, a mid-year cut in state funding forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lay off 24 city employees who worked the overnight shift picking up homeless residents and transporting them to shelters.

Under pressure from aldermen to restore the homeless cuts, Emanuel set aside the $200,000 needed to reinstate “two to three” teams of employees working the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift to make certain that homeless Chicagoans who need overnight transport to shelters get the ride they need to get out of the cold.

Now, the city is getting out of the “human services mobile outreach” business that includes overnight transport, well-being checks and delivery of food boxes. The job will be done by Catholic Charities, which has promised to do it cheaper.

The $1.7 million in savings will be used to dramatically increase shelter and support services for the city’s homeless youth.

It’s part of a $2.5 million annual investment the city is making to launch Phase Two of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ten-year plan to end homelessness.

The city’s investment includes: $1 million for new and expanded support centers on the North, South, and West sides serving 1,000 homeless youth; $1 million to provide 100 shelter beds serving 400 homeless youth and $500,000 to provide job training and placement services for 220 homeless adults.

“My goal here is not to preserve a [city] program. That’s not what we do. It’s to provide a better path for people in need and the most vulnerable,” Emanuel said during a news conference at a shelter under construction in Austin for young mothers.

“Catholic Charities is a better way to do it. It means we have $1.7 more million than we had before to target the kids [who] need it. So, 40 percent more young people who are homeless are now gonna get a bed, education, job training and the capacity they need to move on in their lives.”

On the eve of his 2003 re-election, Daley established an ambitious goal of ending homelessness in Chicago by 2012. He embraced a plan that called for shifting the focus away from shelter and toward permanent housing with a bottomless network of social services.

Part Two is “less pie-in-the-sky” and more “pragmatic” in its focus on homeless youth, according to Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“The focus on kids is right-on. If you could stabilize kids, give ‘em a good place to live and an education, then you’re gonna stop homelessness before it repeats itself,” Shurna said.

“In the public schools, there are over 17,000 kids who are doubled-up. Their parents don’t have the resources to pay for the rent, so they’re doubled up with relatives or friends. That means kids are switching homes every six months. That’ll hurt their education. That’s a recipe for failing in school.”

One of the largest unions representing city workers blasted Emanuel’s plan, saying “Privatization time and again is shown to result in a diminishment of services to the public.”

“In this case, the mayor’s privatization plan will result in the layoff of 45 dedicated, experienced employees-most of them women and minorities-and reduce services for the homeless and displaced,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31. “His chosen private provider, Catholic Charities, has said it will hire sharply fewer staff, pay them drastically lower wages and offer few benefits.

“Contracting out this critically important program to Catholic Charities raises concerns for its ability and willingness to appropriately serve the many diverse individuals who need help. Our members are worried about the future of adequate services for the elderly, those struggling with mental illness, victims of domestic violence, families displaced by fire or eviction, and in particular LGBT youth and women in need of reproductive health care.”

Emanuel’s 2012 budget included a 7 percent boost in city funding for homeless services — to $8.56 million — and a new 20-bed shelter for 18-to-24-year-olds, Chicago’s second “youth shelter.”

But that was nowhere near enough to accommodate a 98 percent increase since 2003 in the number of CPS students either “doubled-up” with other families or living on the streets, Shurna said.

Chicago had 6,598 people living on the street or in shelters, according to a January 2011 count. CPS figures are higher because they include students living “doubled up” with other families.