WBEZ: Families make up a growing number of the homeless population

By Susie An

The people we see at an underpass might be the most visible among the homeless population in Chicago. But families make up a major part of the count, and they often go unnoticed.

Marilyn Escoe with her eldest daughter, Kaleyah (WBEZ/Susie An)
Marilyn Escoe with her eldest daughter, Kaleyah (WBEZ/Susie An)

If you saw Marilyn Escoe, you might just see a single mother to four. A few years ago, she was providing for her family on a tight budget, but things spiraled when her mom got sick. Her mother moved into her house and Escoe became her caretaker.


“My mom, she started getting sicker. That didn’t leave me enough time to keep up with my job duties,” she said.

Escoe lost her job and fell behind on rent. She thought staying with a friend would be a burden and that moving into a homeless shelter would put the responsibility on her. So she made the tough decision to put her mother in the hospital and move the kids to a shelter.

“I thought about the sense of privacy. I thought about how would my children react with other children,” she said.

Escoe and her kids slept on bunk beds in a dorm-style space with other families.

What was supposed to be a four-month stay, turned into two years.

“The twins, they actually started their puberty at the shelter. I said, “wow,” if anything else can’t happen, this had to happen,” she said.

Escoe’s mother passed away during that time, and her oldest daughter had to step up when Escoe got a part-time job.

“I couldn’t be able to transport them to school. So at 12 years old, she was taking her three siblings back to the West Side to school. So it was like an hour and half away from the shelter,” she said.

Escoe’s story isn’t uncommon. The city’s most recent count recorded a general homeless population of 6,294, relatively unchanged from the previous year. But there was a 7 percent increase in sheltered families with children.

Providers like the Primo Center for Women and Children felt that uptick firsthand.

“There are so many families we turn away because we don’t have the beds,” said Christine Achre, CEO of the center.

This shelter has wraparound services, things like child care and counseling. Unlike many facilities in the city, families share apartment-style units. There are 111 beds here, and Achre says 30 families are using all of them.

Over the years, Achre has seen intact families and single fathers with their kids. The most typical configuration is a mother and at least one child. Achre says one of the greatest predictors of adult homelessness is if a mother’s experienced residential instability in her youth.

“It’s really important that if we’re going to break the cycle of homelessness, that we need to nurture our families more and give more priority to family homelessness,” she said.

The city’s Department of Family and Support Services has a $43 million homelessness program. It’s a mix of funding from the federal government, the state, the city and some private donors.

John Pfeiffer with DFSS says poverty is a complex problem that takes many agencies working together.

“When there is a failure in one system or if someone’s had a bad experience in one of those systems, or multiple systems it can result ultimately in homelessness. So we’re always trying to look back up the chain and try to see what policy changes can be made to prevent further homelessness,” he said.

Pfeiffer says beds were available for all families in need this year, whether that was at a shelter or an overflow site. He says the city’s been maintaining its services for all subsets, and it’s aligned itself with a federal initiative to end veteran homelessness in 2015.

Julie Dworkin with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says while those efforts are good, it can turn attention away from other groups. For example, she says, a previous push to end chronic homelessness came with the idea that it would free up resources for others.

“Where the resources are getting saved are emergency room visits, jails. Other systems are saving money because these folks aren’t accessing them. But it doesn’t create any more money in the homeless service system,” she said.

Dworkin says families make up more than half the city’s homeless population. The coalition’s annual count estimates 138,575 people were homeless between June 2013 and June 2014. That’s 22 times the city’s count.

The main difference is the city uses standards from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the coalition uses the definition from the Department of Education. Basically, the coalition counts people living temporarily with a friend or relative, and the city doesn’t.

“If you say these folks who are doubled up aren’t homeless, they’re eventually going to end up in the shelter system. That’s the most common pattern, (is) when the families come in and you say ‘why are you here?’ They say it was because of a dispute. Those situations break down,” she said.

Dworkin says there’s been little change to the city’s budget line item for the homeless over the years.

“So whether it’s a good budget time or bad budget time, it sort of stays stagnant. So it’s a matter of priorities,” she said.

These days things are looking up for Marilyn Escoe. She and her children live in a subsidized apartment in Rogers Park. She just finished a culinary program and works part time at the homeless facility that once sheltered her.

“I was once in those shoes and I had shelter. Some people don’t even have shelter. It could’ve still been me out there,” she said.

The city says it’s adding new beds in 2015. It hopes with an increase in the minimum wage and more available affordable housing, those extra beds will be just that, extra.