by Marie Beaty
Almost one month ago, the Department of Family and Support Services boasted an impressive headline: “City of Chicago Announces a 13 Percent Decrease in Homelessness Since 2015.” As reported in a Point-in-Time count conducted on Jan. 26 of this year, the total homeless population is 5,889, down from 6,786 in 2015. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “Our work to address homelessness is not done until every Chicagoan has a place to call home.” Yet as recently as Oct. 3, groups are mobilizing to protest Chicago’s continued mistreatment and subjugation of the homeless.
Where are the results if the city assures us homelessness is getting better? Earlier this year, the Mayor’s office announced a partnership with Covenant House to provide more resources for homeless youths. According to the official press release, the effort would open over the summer and include 20 additional beds. However, these plans have yet to come to fruition, although the Covenant House website still insists, “Covenant House Illinois is Coming!”
Empty promises aren’t the only thing on the minds of Chicago’s homeless population; a huge concern is the nationwide epidemic of shelter closures. On Sept. 12, a City Council meeting voted against the proposal for a men’s homeless shelter in East Chicago. Some local business owners feared that a shelter would increase panhandling in the neighborhood. Council President Myrna Maldonado felt that the shelter would interfere with a local downtown area: “My concern was making sure that we have a very vibrant business district,” Her voice on behalf of the businesses tipped the scale against the proposal.
Adding to this burden is the recent news that a men’s homeless shelter in Uptown will close indefinitely on Dec. 23, just days before Christmas. North Side Housing and Supportive Services, which runs the shelter, will no longer receive partial financing to maintain the program, which has housed at least 320 men in the past year. Board member Dick Simpson calls the inadequate funding of the shelter “a massive political failure.” While DFSS claims it will work to relocate as many men as possible, Uptown is straining under the needs of its homeless. On Sept. 26, Uptown Tent City was officially shut down. Dozens of people were forced to either move with only a few days’ notice or stay and be arrested for trespassing. “The shelters are full,” reports Dolores Parker, one of many now searching for a place to stay, “There’s nowhere for us to go.”
The purported decrease in the homeless population may not have been a result of the city’s efforts. The 2016 PIT report shows that most statistics remained about the same from last year. The greatest change was in the number of unsheltered individuals unaccompanied by family, which dropped by over 40 percent. However, 2016 marked the first implementation of a new method for counting homeless individuals who utilize the CTA. Historically, volunteer teams board the CTA and count individuals sleeping in each car. In cars not boarded, the teams estimated the number of homeless individuals, which may have resulted in an inflated count. In 2016, teams are now stationed at the end of each line and count riders that re-board vehicles after being forced to exit. It’s likely that the 40 percent decrease boasted by the city is more fiction than fact.
So why does the city insist this crisis is getting better? DFSS Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler claims Chicago is “committed to the compassionate and consistent approach to ending homelessness.” In light of shelter closures and empty promises, the city’s response to homelessness seems anything but compassionate and consistent. The media is quick to publicize Chicago’s efforts to combat homelessness, but aren’t committed to holding the city responsible for their counterproductive actions. In the midst of an Illinois budget disaster, care for the homeless looks like the first thing to go. Chicago's priority is to build a healthy economy, but consequentially treats our city’s homeless as if they are a shame and a burden.
To learn more about the homelessness crisis, go online to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. They provide services for homeless individuals, as well as resources to educate yourself and take action. One of the best – and easiest – ways to take action is to vote in local elections on Nov. 8. As students and residents, our role is to educate others and push for positive change in Chicago for everyone.
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness: http://www.ich.gov/action/individuals/
Illinois Online Voter Registration: https://ova.elections.il.gov/