To end homelessness, we must embrace discomfort during and after cold snap

CCH Executive Director Doug Schenkelberg submitted the following op-ed to Crain’s Chicago Business, published February 4, 2021.

The city is bracing itself for extreme weather, with the temperature predicted to drop into negative digits for a number of days. During cold snaps like this, many eyes turn toward our unhoused neighbors. This year, homelessness is a crisis within a crisis – the pandemic – and it has people and institutions pivoting to add resources to protect people experiencing homelessness from this life-threatening cold, as it should. But when the cold abates and shifts back to more moderate winter temperatures, those resources will recede, and success will be measured by how few people were physically harmed rather than how many people are no longer homeless. 

Add to this moment an incident that occurred in January in which Chicago Alderman Jim Gardiner praised “volunteers” for cleaning up an area under a viaduct in his ward. What these individuals did was throw away the possessions of a man experiencing homelessness who was living there. The actions of these residents and the subsequent pat on the back from their elected official sent a clear message – seeing homelessness is uncomfortable and getting it out of the line of sight is the goal. 

That same month, the organization I direct, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), along with our partners at the ACLU of Illinois and Schiff Hardin, announced that a federal court struck down anti-panhandling laws as unconstitutional stating these laws infringed on free speech. While we and others applauded this decision, another Chicago official, Alderman Brian Hopkins, told the media that he hoped to introduce a new ordinance that would evade this ruling. His ordinance would aim to alleviate the discomfort some feel when asked for help. Again, the message being sent by some of our leaders is that the focus of efforts and policy making should be to hide homelessness, not end it. 

When we take a step back, we have to recognize the pattern at play. That these examples, and countless others, demonstrate how little progress our city has made towards ending homelessness, and, by extension, how little progress we’ve made to truly advance racial equity. When over 60% of the people experiencing homelessness in our city are Black and our guiding framework is to manage and hide homelessness, we are failing miserably at addressing inequity. 

We should also be deeply uncomfortable with the knowledge that more than 16,000 CPS students  experience homelessness each year. The homelessness that we see on the street is only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of the nearly 77,000 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago are doubled-up, or temporarily staying with others. They are unseen by most of us, but to ignore them is to deny the safety and stability that every adult and child needs to get by. 

Taking on the task of ending homelessness requires discomfort. Sitting with it. Letting excuses and rationales for maintaining the status quo fall away. And it requires us to act. There is a solution to homelessness – permanent housing with supports – and that solution can be enacted if we had the political will to do so. Yes, this costs money. But continuously triaging homelessness costs money too. If Chicago had a dedicated revenue stream to pay for housing, we could put resources into what we know actually works, rather than band-aids such as emergency rooms and jails, that do nothing to solve the problem and can even do more harm. 

Let’s embrace the discomfort and allow it to move us toward real solutions. To do anything else would be to deny the humanity of our fellow Chicagoans, and our own.