Streeterville resident Dorothy Lam says she’s seen homeless children cuddled up in their parents laps in the doorways of downtown Chicago more than once. But she didn’t think about the total number of homeless kids in the city until she was expecting a child of her own.
So she came to Curious City with a question:
How many homeless kids are there in Chicago, and what can I do to help?
Turns out, that depends on who you ask. Estimates range dramatically, from 1,215 to 20,779. And the number of runaways or kids without a guardian ranges from 6,745 to just seven.
It’s easy to quickly get lost in these numbers, but they have a real human impact. That’s because estimates of Chicago’s homeless population dictate federal funding, and low numbers mean fewer shelter beds, food and social workers available to help these kids survive.
Hard to Find
To get a community the funding it needs to fight homelessness, federal agencies have to know how large is the homeless population. So the first step in fighting homelessness is counting the homeless.
Here’s the problem: Most children facing homelessness — about 81 percent, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless — are living in homes. They’re just not in their homes. They’re called “doubled-up,” meaning they’re staying with friends and relatives, typically until welcomes are worn out. Although the federal definition of homelessness has included this perpetually couch-surfing population since 2001, they often don’t make it into the official federal tally simply because they are more difficult to find.
In an attempt to estimate the homeless population in any given city, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires what’s called a point-in-time count. Every year, every shelter must turn over the tally of people who slept in shelter beds on a given night in late January. And every other year, communities must also send out volunteers to try and count every person sleeping on the streets on that same night (although Chicago and many other communities choose to do that in-person count yearly).
In 2018, the shelters and volunteers counted 5,450 homeless people in Chicago, 1,215 of whom were children.
But the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless believes that figure is a significant undercount. Through a combination of estimates and Census data, they believe there to be 86,324 homeless people — 20,799 of whom are kids — in Chicago. That’s more than 17 times the size of the point-in-time tally for the under-18 age group.
According to the coalition, about a third of all homeless kids are unaccompanied minors…