Chicago Tribune: Crowded houses – program seeks to aid homeless families forced to live with family, friends

Published June 2, 2017
By Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune reporter

Pandemonium has been the norm for 17-year-old Sonitra Mitchell in the two years since her family lost their north suburban apartment and moved in with more than a dozen relatives living at her grandmother’s Far South Side two-flat.

Each morning, before the sun rises, the high school junior is roused by a flurry of footsteps and flickering lights before she gets up and jockeys for position outside the bathroom. After a five-minute shower, enforced by a timer, she gets dressed and hustles to catch a city bus from West Pullman to Harlan Community Academy, about 4 miles away.

After class, she takes her time before heading back into the fray of the crowded household.

LINK TO VIEW VIDEO: In collaboration with the nonprofit Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a new city program looks to help families forced to live with others. (Alyssa Pointer and Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

“I didn’t like coming home,” Sonitra said. “I would stay at school as long as possible to do anything I could. I would sit at school and do homework, talk to friends. … But every time I woke up I was like, ‘I have to start this day over and over, again.'”

Sprawling homeless encampments under viaducts and families vying for beds at local shelters are the most visible examples of housing instability. But there are thousands more who have seen their lives upended by economic hardship, forcing them to move in with friends or family.

For the first time, people like Sonitra — who fall into a category known as “doubled up” — are being included in an initiative to help the homeless. The Chicago Department of Family and Support Servicesin April announced it will be providing permanent housing for 100 homeless and at-risk families with children who live in the high-crime neighborhoods of Austin, Humboldt Park, West Englewood and Englewood.

Created in collaboration with nonprofit Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the pilot program seeks to provide housing stability for students. The program will be paid for through a city tax on the home-sharing industry, which includes companies like Airbnb.

In implementing the city tax, Chicago joins a handful of municipalities across the country that have created a sustainable stream of funds dedicated to assisting homeless families instead of relying on unpredictable state and federal money. In March, Los Angeles County residents voted to increase the sales tax a quarter-percent to raise an estimated $3.5 billion over a decade in an effort to house 45,000 of the county’s 47,000 homeless people.