The Complexities of Homelessness in Chicago



Many people in Chicago are unaware that the homeless population is increasing and face of homelessness is changing. Fifty-eight percent of the homeless people in large metropolitan areas are families, usually a single mom with children. They live on the streets or in a temporary shelter. They are the fastest growing population of homeless people today. Homelessness can have complex issues that can be overwhelming and impact veterans, families, and youth.

The reasons for homelessness vary but often include job loss and the lack of social support systems. According to The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness (NSCAHH), the causes of homelessness include mental, economic, and social factors.

Being homeless is a form of poverty caused by the instability of housing and inadequate income. There are three different types of homelessness:

  • Absolute Homelessness: People who use shelters for periods of time but mostly live on the streets;
  • Concealed Homelessness: Those who live with family members and friends, i.e., couch surfing;
  • At-Risk Homelessness: A family or individual becomes at-risk of losing their home due to eviction or lease expiration.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reported 82,212 people were homeless in 2015. A survey conducted by the city in 2016 breaks down the specifics of the homeless population.

The report stated that 78.9 percent of the homeless were staying in shelters and 21.1 percent were without shelter. The portion of families, who were homeless, equaled 36.8 percent, while 63.2 percent were single.

According to Chicago Public Schools, 18,821 students were homeless during the 2015-16 school year. Eight-seven percent lived doubled-up in overcrowded households with other family members or friends. Nearly 12 percent of these students were living in shelters. Another 12.7 percent lived on their own, and less than one percent resided in motels.

The number of unaccompanied youth, those under 25 living without an adult family member, was 11,231. Chicago Public Schools reported that 2,396 of those were in attendance during the 2015-16 school year.

Increased Homelessness

Chicago had a 20 percent increase in homeless veterans between 2009 and 2016. This is up seven percent from 2015 and nine percent in 2014.

Overall, the homeless population increased in the downtown areas, including the Loop and near North Side neighborhoods. The Uptown homeless population doubled and accounted for 9.4 percent of the homeless in Chicago.

The 2016 street and shelter count was 5,889 people in January, compared to 6,786 the year before. This reflected a 13 percent drop and is the lowest number reported in 10 years.

Julie Dworkin, Director of Policy for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless stated, “the count may have shown a drop with some homeless populations, the count is ‘flawed’ because it does not include those homeless who live with family or friends instead of on the streets and in shelters.” She added, “It’s all about coming up with one list then going through the list systematically working to get everybody housed.”

Affordable Housing

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), “There is no state in the U.S. where a minimum wage worker working full time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent.”

For example, the Chicago housing wage was $23.69 per hour, for a two bedroom rental. At $8.25 an hour, two people would have to work 101 hours a week to pay $1,085 a month for a fair market value apartment.

There are two types of housing assistance programs to help families or individuals regain housing; Permanent Supportive Services or Long-term Rental Assistance. These programs are targeted toward families with chronic diseases, mental issues, and disabilities, who have goals to obtain housing and self-sufficiency. The Public Housing and Voucher Programs provide safe affordable housing to low-income people. The Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) is a form of federal housing assistance that provides subsidized rates to the elderly and those with disabilities.

One in four of those eligible for low-income housing receives assistance. They are required to pay 30 percent of their income toward housing expenses.

Homeless Youth

People trying to escape domestic violence are likely to become homeless. Mental illness and substance abuse issues frequently magnify aggression.

The rate of sexual abuse among homeless youth ranges from 21 to 42 percent. Common issues for children include hunger, inadequate hygiene, and poor relationships with others.

Foster homes house children until the age of 18, which is when many are tossed back onto the streets. Unaccompanied youth experience homelessness differently than those who are with a family. They go hungry twice as often than other children, they are four times as likely to experience developmental delays, and twice as likely to have learning disabilities.

Efforts have been made to decrease the number of homeless youth. To help prevent runaways, there are programs that teach parenting skills, conflict resolution, and offers counseling.

The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) provides young people with immediate needs. Their program offers 21 days of shelter, food, and counseling. FYSB seeks to “reunite young people with their families, whenever possible, or to locate appropriate alternative placements.”

The Transitional Living Program provides group homes for youths with host families in supervised apartments owned by the program.

All Disabilities Contribute to Homelessness

In 2015, on any given night in Chicago, 18 percent of the homeless reportedly had a mental illness or substance abuse problem. Typically, only 10 percent of the homeless seek treatment for these issues.

Furthermore, over 9,000 homeless people had HIV or AIDS, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some communities have Health Care for the Homeless Clinics. The Affordable Care Act included the option for states to expand their Medicaid programs to help those who could not afford help. However, this is still not enough.

Homeless and Hungry

The homeless have multiple obstacles when it comes to obtaining proper nutrition. They cannot buy foods that need cold storage. For example, even though a gallon of milk is inexpensive and nutritious, it spoils quickly without refrigeration.

Another concern is finding a place to store non-perishable items. Therefore, people choose unhealthy, processed foods that can be easily carried.

The meals at shelters are low quality, have poor nutritional value, and sometimes there is not enough to go around. Food is often donated by markets or stores, but organizations have strict rules on what can be received.

Food safety rules state that shelters cannot receive food donated by catering companies, and they cannot receive raw ingredients. They do allow for fruit, vegetables, cookies, beans, rice, soup, and canned foods to be donated.

Homeless Shelters in Chicago

In 2015, there were 1,701 shelter beds available. There were 4,574 beds in transitional living programs, and 7,613 in permanent supportive housing.

There are only 580 youth shelters in the entire state of Illinois. More than half of them are in Chicago.

In September 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a task force to reduce homelessness in Chicago.

However, Gov. Rauner’s budget proposal includes critical cuts in services for the homeless. This will impact an estimated 12,582 households. Emergency shelters will be forced to turn away more than 45,000 people, and more than 1,300 homeless youth will lose services and life-saving shelters.

Many of these shelters and services do no have enough funding to continue throughout the year, but they continue to help as many as possible

How can the most prosperous country in the world have so many homeless people in need?  We must shine the biggest and brightest light on this problem and perhaps by bringing awareness to the complexities and scope of homelessness can help. It is hard to believe many know or understand just how many homeless people there are.

Real Homelessness: Interviews

The author interviewed a number of people who have experienced homelessness and attempted to interview employees of local shelters in the Chicago area.

The first interview was with Tierra, a former resident of SARHAC Shelter in Chicago, located in the Austin neighborhood.

Thompson: What was it like at the shelter?

Tierra: We have our own isolated rooms with beds, there were bunk beds to be exact. Our room door can lock automatically so we have to keep our keys handy. This shelter lets its residents bring in outside food. We even can use the microwave in the cafeteria. Breakfast is early, about 7am, and lunch is around 1 p.m. and dinner is usually around 5:30 to 6 p.m. We share a bathroom and shower area with all other residents. We are not allowed to go in certain areas of the building, because it is shared with a half-way house.

Thompson: So your children are in potential danger while staying there?

Tierra: Kind of, as parents we are told to escort our children everywhere, if they are under age.

Thompson: What beneficial help do they provide?

Tierra: They help look for housing that we can afford. I currently work, but my kid’s father does not due to his criminal background. They also help with employment. Sometimes there are flyers on an employment board.

Thompson: What do they provide upon arrival to the shelter?

Tierra: We were given bed sheets, pillows with cases, bathroom items, and the paperwork letting us know the rules and regulations. We did have to complete chores as a part of agreeing to stay there. You could not miss your chore or you can get a tally against you. After a certain amount of tallies, you will be discharged from the program.

Thompson: How long is the program?

Tierra: About six months. Some people were there longer because they became friendly with their caseworkers.

Thompson: How were the conditions while staying there?

Tierra: Well for starters, the women there were very ignorant. They argued among themselves about who was better than who, but we were all homeless. Some of the families there had kids without good manners; there was an incident where some kids flooded the entire bathroom. Their parents where not escorting them to the bathroom like they were supposed to be doing. Another time, a kid had a bowel movement and instead of his parent cleaning it up, they left it there.

Thompson: What were those families’ consequences?

Tierra: To my knowledge, the mothers were given a warning for not escorting their kids to the bathroom areas and the janitor cleaned the showers. No child admitted to the act, so no parent could clean it.

Thompson: How long were you at this facility? Why did you leave?

Tierra: I was there about three months. I left because my room had become infested with bed bugs. I did tell my case worker but little was done because they came back, so I just left. I packed some light things and grabbed my boys.

Thompson: Would you say they helped you at all?

Tierra: No. I feel that they could have done a lot better with how fast a pace it was to get housing. I mean, at the latest, six months for a family to get permanent housing. Until then, I spent twice as much than if I had my own home.

Another interview conducted was with a 63-year-old homeless man, named Gabrel. He became homeless due to depression.

Thompson: How did you become homeless?

Gabrel: I lost my job because I was an alcoholic. I became an alcoholic after my son was killed at the age of 11.

Thompson: Were you married? Why did your wife not help you?

Gabrel: I was. She divorced me. She was distant after he died, but she could not handle my drinking. I did become abusive verbally towards her. I do not blame her for leaving.

Thompson: How long have you been homeless and how do you survive each day? Have you tried shelters for single men?

Gabrel: I have been homeless about five years now. I get by on dumpster diving, receiving old food from some restaurants or grocery stores, food pantries and sometimes I may get money to buy it. I have been to a shelter before. I do not like all the rules because they are not beneficial toward me.

Thompson: What do you mean by that last statement?

Gabrel: I mean basically that if I have to be back by 5 p.m. that creates a short window if I want to work. If I work, I won’t make it back in time for dinner, which is also served around curfew hours. Breakfast is not until 5 a.m. and lunch is at 1 p.m. I could not bring in outside food. I would basically have the hardest time eating. Out here on my own, I can just go buy it or go to a soup kitchen.

Thompson: Do you plan on getting better to become housed again? Maybe work?

Gabrel: I will. I just need time to collect myself. Depression can take a toll on the mind, and there are not many services available towards me unless I pay or go to jail. Until then, I will take my time.

Shelter Response

Thompson attempted to interview some employees at the SARHAC location but was denied entry by security at the desk. She did not identify herself or the purpose of this article, but the security officer stated: “The employees are not going to talk to you. For one, they really do not give a care (actually he said much worse) about these people. They come here to do their job and they leave.”

Thompson then went to 10 S. Kedzie to Catholic Charities to interview an employee or get information about being homeless, the process, and how they help people who come too them for assistance. I was told, “We cannot give you that information and cannot tell you.” She was also told, “Catholic Charities does not receive donations there for people. It all comes from the city,” she guesses.

The only material provided for research on the shelters in Chicago was a small card that had different locations listed, to call and “see if they may want to talk to you.”

Understanding all of this can be difficult. Are these shelters doing all they can for the homeless population? Is the city of Chicago doing their part?

It is important for communities to know which charities are worthy of donations and to support those that are doing good works.

Written by Nicole Thompson
Edited by D. Chandler and C. Jackson


Chicago Monitor: National Crisis of Homelessness felt deeply in Chicago
DNA Info: Chicago’s Homeless Population Has Dropped 13 percent in a Year
City of Chicago: 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey Report
Chicago Homeless: Chicago Coalition for The Homeless

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Mark’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


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