RedEye: Chicago’s homeless population stretches beyond those on streets, in shelters

By Michael Lansu

T.J. Kiser has always had a roof over his head, but his name hasn’t always been on the mailbox.

More than 130,000 Chicagoans live with family or friends because of economic hardship, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The federal government, however, does not classify these people as homeless.

Kiser, 28, was in that gray area when he chose to stay with friends after his roommates suddenly moved out and then he lost his job in 2012.

The former Chipotle employee did not want to move back home with his parents because of his and their different lifestyles, so he asked friends if he could sleep on their couches.

“I left my apartment with my bag and my guitar, and I just couch-surfed off everybody’s good will,” Kiser said.

With no job and nowhere to live, Kiser stayed with friends for weeks until he could get back on his feet.

“I tried to only stay at some places for two or three nights,” Kiser said. “One place was six nights, but another place was only one night. Eventually, a friend let me stay at their place.”

Kiser said he didn’t have money to give his hosts for bills or rent.

“I was trying not to spend money. … I gave people art, I drew them pictures [as payment],” he said.

Kiser’s situation is not uncommon.

Signs created by the homeless along Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. (Hilary Higgins for RedEye)
Signs created by the homeless along Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. (Hilary Higgins for RedEye)

Defining “homelessness”

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which uses four sources including Chicago Public Schools data to count families without a permanent residence, estimated there were 125,848 homeless Chicagoans during the 2014-15 school year.

The federal government does not consider most of these people homeless.

In 2014, a “point-in-time count” during a single night in January of Chicago’s homeless population found 5,329 people in homeless shelters and another 965 unsheltered residents, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While people living on the street may be the most visible type of homeless group, they make up only a small percentage of the city’s homeless population, said Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“We know where there are concentrations of folks on the street: Lower Wacker, Wilson and Lawrence [avenues], and the Belmont and Kedzie underpass,” McMenamin said. “We know where street homelessness is visible, but that doesn’t mean that there are fewer homeless [people].”

McMenamin said the HUD point-in-time estimates do not count people without permanent homes, many of whom are entire families “doubled-up” with friends or relatives.

The HUD census numbers indicate street homelessness is down, but McMenamin said homelessness is on the rise, according to the CCH numbers.

Signs created by the homeless along Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. (Hilary Higgins for RedEye)
Signs created by the homeless along Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. (Hilary Higgins for RedEye)

‘Street people … shelter folks’ and those lacking fixed addresses

“There are two different definitions of homelessness. It’s not just street people or shelter folks. We consider it anyone lacking a fixed address,” McMenamin said. “… If it’s you and your sister and your two kids and her two kids in a one-bedroom apartment, then there is no stability there. Often what we see is folks double up and end up on the street or in shelters. Welcomes get worn out, tensions arise and people can only house one another for so long.”

According to the CCH, families made up half of Chicago’s homeless population, including more than 48,000 homeless children with parents and another 12,000 people younger than 21 without parents or guardians.

The CCH estimates there are more than 64,000 homeless adults, about 46 percent of the total homeless population.

Kiser fell into that category and said he considered himself homeless when he was couch-surfing.

“I told people that I was homeless because I didn’t have a house of my own,” Kiser said. “That is how I felt. I didn’t sleep on the street, but it felt like I was homeless.”

McMenamin said that nationally a lot of resources have been dedicated to veterans and the chronically homeless, but “we are seeing increases in family homelessness. … There are fewer resources for families who may need bigger units.”

In Chicago, the number of families without homes has been on the rise since the recession because of the foreclosure crisis, McMenamin said.

“More renters were impacted than homeowners,” she said. “Many multi-unit buildings ended up getting foreclosed on, and folks would lose their housing. The rental market was getting squeezed because people were losing the homes they owned, prices rose on rental housing.”

Meet one of the men behind the cardboard signs

Ulysses White shows the signs of the times—six of them, in fact.

The 54-year-old homeless man sits on a milk crate at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. He holds a cardboard sign that tells his story and props up several others that thank passersby for their generosity.

White said his troubles started when he lost his job nearly three years ago. The former nurses aide moved in with his mother but was forced onto the streets when she passed away.

White is now one of more than 5,000 homeless people in Chicago who live on the street or in a shelter.

Like many homeless people, White said he could not find a job and now has to beg for money. His cardboard signs, featuring hand-lettered messages in various colors, help him generate some income until he can find employment.

“They do background checks, and that messed me up,” White said. “I got in some trouble downstate, and that messed me up.”

White said he does not have enough money for a permanent residence and prefers sleeping on the street or the Blue Line to the city’s homeless shelters.

Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said many homeless people prefer staying on the street to shelters, which she noted were never designed to be permanent residences.

“It really does vary from person to person. At some point, in all likelihood, someone on the street has spent time in a shelter,” McMenamin said. “People often don’t feel safe at shelters. When they gather on the street, they are often with an encampment and feel safer because they aren’t sleeping by themselves. It’s possible they had a bad experience at a shelter. Maybe they have been robbed. They form communities so they can look out for each other. If someone has to leave to go run an errand or go to the doctor, someone can watch their things.”

‘Homeless’ does not always mean ‘unemployed’

Just because a homeless person is asking for spare change at a busy intersection or outside a Loop train station doesn’t mean they are unemployed.

Many homeless people in Chicago have jobs—often part-time or seasonal work—but still don’t make enough money for a permanent home, said Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“Many homeless people do work,” McMenamin said. “Maybe they are selling Sun-Times, sweeping up or doing odd jobs somewhere. It may be that they have some benefits, including disability or Social Security. It’s not that they don’t have any
income at all, just not enough to support an actual residence.”

And not everyone asking for money on the street is homeless.

Near Michigan Avenue and Illinois Street, a man sits with a large cardboard sign asking for money. The South Sider, who asked not to be identified, explained that he is not homeless but is a seasonal worker who doesn’t have enough consistent income to support his 10 children. He said his sign helps him make $40 to $50 per day.

The man said he sees a lot of people asking for money on the weekend to earn extra income.

Homelessness by the numbers

52.3 percent: The number of renters in Chicago who are “extremely low income,” making less than $22,000 per year.

$17,160: The annual salary for someone working a full-time minimum wage job in Chicago.

44 percent: The percentage of a full-time minimum wage worker’s paycheck that goes toward housing at the median fair market price in Illinois.

629,454: The number of people living in poverty in Chicago with 298,403 of those living in “extreme poverty.”

(Source: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless)