Community advocates call on city to fill gap left by feds to house doubled-up homeless households


On Monday morning, community advocates from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) called on the city to dedicate city resources to provide housing to Chicagoans who are living doubled-up. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly 77,000 people in Chicago experienced homelessness in 2018. Three in four of those households were doubled-up, which often involves a highly precarious living situation, moving frequently from one couch to another.

April Harris, who has lived experience with homelessness, explains, “Being doubled-up is absolutely awful. You wake up one day and don’t know where you will sleep the next night. The experience is traumatic, stressful and incredibly scary.”

The city has received millions of dollars from the CARES Act to address homelessness; however, these funds cannot be used to house doubled-up households. Chicagoans living doubled-up would have to enter a shelter or live on the street to become eligible for these resources. Advocates called on the city to advance a two-pronged strategy. First, to immediately set aside funding for 500 units ($12 million) in this year’s budget for doubled-up households to address the gap left by federal funding. Second, advocates called on the city to create new, significant, dedicated, local revenue to address homelessness as a long-term strategy. One route to achieving this would be to raise the Real Estate Transfer Tax (a one time tax on properties when they are sold) on properties over $1 million). A proposal made by the Bring Chicago Home coalition would do just that and not only dedicate funding to house people experiencing homelessness, but also create revenue for the general budget.

Throughout the hearing, Aldermen asked about what the city could do to help doubled-up households. “Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler acknowledged the existence of doubled-up today, but also recognized that federal funds prohibit the city from housing those living doubled-up,” said Julie Dworking, Director of Policy at CCH. “When pressed, the commissioner could not provide a solution for housing doubled-up families despite doubling-up contributing to the spread of COVID. To us, this underscores the need for the city to fill the gap left by the federal government if we want to meaningfully address homelessness.”

For many homeless youth, living doubled-up is the standard. Flora Koppel, the Executive Director at Unity Parenting and Counseling, reiterated the need to leverage city funds to address doubled-up, “Many homeless youth live doubled-up. They may be able to stay at a friend’s house for a few days or weeks or with a relative or family friend briefly. In these circumstances they do not know from day to day if they will have a place to stay. In some of these situations the price for doubling up may include verbal, physical or sexual abuse, exposure to unsafe environments or at best significant overcrowding preventing studying, sleeping and health safety risks. When doubled-up youth are not allowed access to appropriate supportive housing options their risk of long term homelessness and long lasting  impact is greatly increased.”

“Providing housing is not only the right thing to do, but is a critical piece of a strategy to address our current health crisis. Doubled-up households, by nature, are living in a congregate setting,” said April. A recent investigation by WBEZ appears to back that claim when it found that zip codes in Chicago with more overcrowded housing are seeing higher rates of COVID infection. April continued, “By providing housing, households are in a better position to safely quarantine, which will limit the spread of COVID and save lives. It is easy to see the upfront cost and say, ‘we can’t pay for that.’ But we already pay for homelessness in other ways.”

Cities that respond with mental health workers instead of police to people in crisis found that a highly disproportionate number of calls were from people experiencing homelessness. They are also high users of emergency rooms. Half of the most frequent visitors to the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital are chronically homeless. But when people interact with these systems, not only are they further traumatized, it also costs our government more money than if they just had what they need – housing.   A chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. Costs on average are reduced by 49.5% when they are placed in supportive housing.

“We must be advancing strategies to house people experiencing all forms of homelessness,” said Elizabeth Maldonado, a volunteer with CCH. “I am currently doubled-up, but also know what it’s like to be in the shelter system. Hopping from shelter to shelter to someone’s couch and unable to find a home we can afford – it is traumatizing. It is incredibly painful to have to see my kids go through this. If I had housing, it would mean safety and security for me and my family. It would mean an opportunity to begin healing and rebuilding our lives.”

Mary Tarullo, Associate Director of Policy, CCH