National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week: A reflection from Associate Board Advocacy Chair Lindsay Welbers

In recognition of National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, CCH is sharing reflections from people who work with us – interns, board, and associate board members – writing about what inspires their work. 

Today’s essay is written by Associate Board Advocacy Chair Lindsay Welbers.

Lindsay (left) volunteering in the CCH Riot Fest tent in 2019, pictured here with Community Organizer Bisma Shoukat

Part of the reason that I volunteer to support the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is because they don’t normally ask me for direction. CCH believes that the best people to understand homelessness, and the work that needs to be done to eliminate it, are people who understand that experience. That doesn’t include me, because I have never experienced life on the streets, in a shelter, or doubled-up with someone else. In working with CCH’s grassroots leaders, who do have that experience, I’ve learned a few things: Homelessness is not a moral failing on anyone except the society that allows it to exist, and the kinds of people who experience homelessness are more like me than I thought.

Before I got involved with CCH, my main exposure to homelessness was in seeing it as I traveled through Chicago as part of my day-to-day life. In working with CCH, I’ve come to better understand the realities of homelessness are often invisible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Most families experiencing homelessness are staying wherever they can, often moving between unstable situations. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, CCH estimated that 58,273 Chicagoans were experiencing homelessness. Chicago Public Schools estimates that among its 16,663 students who were experiencing homelessness in the 2018-2019 school year, 88% of them were temporarily staying with others.

When I was in college we called it “couch surfing” and tried to view it as “not a big deal.” Once my sister and her roommate let a mutual friend crash on the couch for a month between leases. Sometimes they stayed at a friend’s apartment when the heat in their building didn’t work. I used to sleep on their couch a few days a week when I was in the city completing college credits. The experience of sleeping on a floor or couch to save money might be similar, but it turns out that for those who are experiencing homelessness the effect can be dramatically different.

Students living doubled up struggle academically, which makes sense because it’s hard to focus on your schoolwork when you’re living in an unstable environment. Often people experiencing homelessness hold jobs. In Chicago alone 14,000 people experiencing homelessness worked at a job where they earned a wage in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. That same year, an estimated 18,365 people experiencing homelessness had some college education or had obtained a degree. Like me, they went to school, they hold jobs, they did everything they were told they were supposed to do.

Those experiencing homelessness are not like me because I am housed, have ample access to services that support my mental and physical health, and I’m white. This problem disproportionately affects my neighbors of color. Due to redlining and modern-day NIMBY-ism, people experiencing homelessness are concentrated in Chicago’s African American and Latinx neighborhoods. Historically, white people represented about 50% of city residents, and Black Chicagoans make up another 30%. But in 2019 CCH estimated there were 271,922 African American Chicagoans living in poverty, compared to 212,726 white Chicagoans living in poverty. Another 180,389 people who are experiencing homelessness identify as Hispanic or Latino. Even one Chicagoan struggling to live in poverty is already too many, but it’s important to recognize in terms of raw numbers the outsized effect this has on our neighbors of color.

People go where we feel safest, and if you don’t have a safe home to stay in, and you do not feel safe in a shelter, then it makes sense that sleeping rough would feel like the safer option for you. If we, as a society, shrug about finding a solution to that problem, the moral failing is not on the person sleeping in motels, train cars, or under the highway, it’s on the society that gave those people no better options.

Other Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week Reflections:

Associate Board President Sara Szwankowski

Policy Intern Sana Sami

Board Member Meena Byers