Crain’s Chicago Business, Op-Ed by Ed Shurna: Should Loop merchants be in the social work business?

By Ed Shurna, Executive Director

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“When people in power start saying stuff like ‘nobody should have to live like that,’ those who are living like that know to be on guard against something bad headed their way.”

This was Mark Brown’s assertion in his Feb. 23 Chicago Sun-Times column about the potential closure of two of Chicago’s cubicle hotels. I thought of Mr. Brown cautionary words when I read Crain’s Oct. 21 report on the Chicago Loop Alliance’s new “Street Team Ambassadors” and their goals for improving State Street. Crain’s reporter Brigid Sweeney describes the aim of the street ambassadors: to make State Street “welcoming, clean and free from recurring panhandlers.”

But wait, there’s more. “Ultimately the team’s goal is to move the Loop’s ‘chronically homeless’ into shelters, half-way houses and other programs,” the Crain’s report goes on to say.

When a group of downtown businesses get into the social work business, I become somewhat skeptical.

Moving people from the sidewalk for “cleaning purposes” often becomes sweeping the homeless away from downtown. I have seen this first hand in Lower Wacker Drive, when the city came in and forcibly removed homeless people from the sidewalk, taking all of their personal possessions and throwing them into a garbage truck. I have seen this in the city parks and under the city viaducts. I wonder if we will now see it on State Street.

This type of “cleaning” is dehumanizing and wrong. But, offering services for homeless people who panhandle or beg for money is very worthwhile.

There’s reason to be hopeful that something good will come from the ambassadors effort. Those of us who work with chronically homeless people know how difficult it is to gain their trust. There is not an overnight solution. It can require as many as 30 to 40 conversations with an individual before anything changes.

Putting people in contact with services has to be an invitation, not a demand. This requires sensitivity, understanding and patience.

There are several wonderful organizations, like Thresholds, which has been providing services and housing to homeless individuals for over 50 years. The mission of organizations like Thresholds is to provide outreach for people on the street. The mission of the Loop Alliance is to enhance the Loop business district so that the businesses there can make money and thrive. What will the Loop Alliance ambassadors’ approach be when a homeless person refuses their assistance? Will the ambassadors be patient and sensitive or will they call the police and the Department of Streets and Sanitation to help remove people so the sidewalks can be “clean”?

Time will tell whether the ambassadors program is another way of “sweeping away the homeless” or whether it is a program that will help a very vulnerable group of people. I remain skeptical but hopeful.