Crain’s Chicago Business: Loop Alliance takes on homelessness with State Street ‘ambassadors’

By Brigid Sweeney, Crain’s Reporter

The outdoor art installations that have dotted the Loop for several years are going away. Instead there will be a team of people tasked with lowering State Street’s homeless population while assisting tourists and keeping the Loop clean.

The so-called Street Team Ambassadors, a team of six who hit the streets today, provide directions, report sidewalk cleaning needs and connect homeless people with social service organizations that can provide shelter and medical attention.

The Street Team, like its art program predecessor, is funded and managed by the Chicago Loop Alliance, which represents a business improvement district that spans the area bounded by the Chicago River on the north and west, Lake Michigan on the east and Congress Parkway on the south.

Similar cleaning and safety programs have had success in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, according to Loop Alliance Executive Director Michael Edwards.

“These hospitality efforts can be highly effective in demonstrating that someone cares about this neighborhood and this street,” he says. “The ambassadors will help State Street evolve to offer a higher-level experience for people.”

The program, fully funded through 2014, will cost $125,000 for the final three months of 2013 and $359,000 for all of 2014. The bulk of the expenditures covers the Street Team members’ salaries, as well as radios, uniforms, iPads and possibly bicycles, Mr. Edwards says. The program will make up about 15 percent of the Loop Alliance’s roughly $2.3 million 2014 budget.

Efforts like these that are trying to be proactive and consistent (about homelessness) improve the chances of success.”

— Betsy Benito,
Corporation for Supportive Housing

Jessica Lall, who oversees the South Park Business Improvement District in downtown Los Angeles, says the $900,000 her organization is spending annually on similar task forces is money well-spent. Since a 13-member security team started patrolling her district in July, “we have seen a 180-degree shift in a positive direction,” she says. The team’s “approachability and ability to shift between security and hospitality services” have been especially helpful.

The Loop Alliance, a member-based organization fueled by area businesses that pay an additional tax, is perhaps best-known for its Art Loop program, begun in 2010, that introduced art installations, both outdoors and inside vacant storefronts. This year, the art is displayed in six indoor locations, down from 15 in 2012. There will be no outdoor artwork in 2014, but the alliance will continue to sponsor storefront displays.

When Mr. Edwards joined the Loop Alliance at the end of 2012, he says, there wasn’t enough time or money to execute a strong art program in 2013. Instead, he says, the group re-evaluated its priorities.

The Street Team program represents a first step toward ensuring that everyone—Loop residents, office workers and tourists fanning out from Millennium Park—finds the neighborhood welcoming, clean and free from recurring panhandlers, Mr. Edwards says. It kicks off a five-year strategic plan for the Loop Alliance that will be unveiled in the next month.

Some experts are skeptical, however. “Is there motivation to solve a community problem, or is there simply motivation to remove a problem from someone’s backyard?” asks Nonie Brennan, CEO of All Chicago. Ms. Brennan, formerly chief executive of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, says All Chicago is the coordinating body for the roughly 200 agencies and services related to housing in the city, but she says she never has been contacted by the alliance.

The alliance ambassadors were trained by the Illinois program at the New York-based Corp. for Supportive Housing. They were instructed in how to approach the homeless and panhandlers, including techniques for how to interview people, build trust and determine if an untreated mental illness exists.

“Homelessness is clearly a very complex and challenging problem, but efforts like this that are trying to be proactive and consistent improve the chance of success,” says Betsy Benito, director of the Illinois program.

Ultimately, the team’s goal is to move the Loop’s “chronically homeless” into shelters, half-way houses and other programs. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 6,700 people are homeless in Chicago on any given day.

The homeless population in the Loop is higher than in most Chicago communities, Ms. Benito adds—an issue compounded by the fact that most social service agencies are located in residential neighborhoods rather than in the downtown business district.

Mr. Edwards says the Street Team program will track its interactions to gauge effectiveness.

“Our understanding is that 40 percent of the homeless on Loop streets are truly homeless and not there by choice,” he says. “If we can help those people, we can virtually cut the area’s homeless problem in half.”