Chicago Sun-Times, Sue Ontiveros: The homeless need a home in our hearts

By Sue Ontiveros, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

For years I walked the same Loop streets to get to the L after work.

I don’t work in that office anymore, but I immediately noticed changes when I walked that familiar path last week.

It seemed to be filled with the homeless. True, in the old days I’d run into a few especially when I worked late, but never like this. Clusters of people in sleeping bags or under blankets were propped along buildings, and at an earlier hour than ever before.

Was I imagining this?

I decided I’d run my experience by someone I figured would know: Ed Shurna. He’s retiring this month, after spending almost 20 years at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the last 12 as executive director. My impression didn’t surprise him.

The shelters are full, but many without permanent housing choose to remain outdoors, according to Shurna. Some say their belongings have been stolen at shelters or they are worried about being harmed.

“They’d rather be outside,” says Shurna who’s seen a similar uptick, which includes a younger crowd. “I’ve seen more young people than I’ve ever seen.”

He’s also notices more in their 50s and 60s, people who to his trained eye look to have only been among the homeless for the last couple years. In the past, the 40s were the top age bracket. (Not surprisingly, living on the streets cuts one’s lifespan.) So what we’re probably seeing are people who more than likely worked all their lives, yet recent circumstances have left them homeless and outdoors.

“They are just surviving,” says Shurna.

CCH says there are more than 100,000 homeless in Chicago. When CCH talks about the homeless that includes those not in shelters, who are in temporary quarters or shuttle between being on and off the streets. That’s a number that has continued to go up for the last 10 years, according to Shurna. In the past the homeless primarily were single men; today they are more likely to be women and children, Shurna says. That explains another daunting number Shurna shared: 20,205 Chicago Public Schools students are homeless.

The people I encountered might not have been unemployed, either. Instead, what we often are seeing are the working poor. Their income just doesn’t add up to enough to cover permanent housing. These days, oftentimes the working poor need three incomes in a household to be able to afford lodging, says Shurna. How sad is that?

People used to be able to “get by,” in cheap — albeit rundown — housing, says Shurna. So much of that is gone; in its place is housing way out of their price range.

But here’s what bothered me just as much as the number I noticed: those walking the streets didn’t seem to notice the homeless. People didn’t seem surprised. It was more like the homeless were just part of the scenery.

Maybe some have grown callous, but I’d rather think just as many aren’t sure how we can change this.

The solutions aren’t easy: We need better wages and more affordable housing, neither of which will happen quickly or in large enough numbers.

“Hard to understand where it will end,” says Shurna, agreeing the situation “doesn’t look that hopeful.”

But it just doesn’t seem right that while people are walking the Loop to shop or dine, people are settling down on those same streets to get a night’s rest. We look like some Third World country. And we’re better than that.

Aren’t we?