From today's 46th Ward newsletter:
Addressing homelessness has been a major focus of mine starting in the 1970s when I opened my apartment to two different people who had no place to live after their discharge from a psychiatric facility. In the 1980s, I was as a case manager for people experiencing homelessness in Uptown, and that focus remained with me when I was elected in 2011.
When I first got into office, I came across one shelter where a man had been living for over 20 years. Another nonprofit was handing out food to people staying in the parks, but had little to no success rate with getting them into permanent housing after 10+ years of providing assistance.
As the first licensed clinical social worker to ever be elected to the City Council. I used my social work expertise to encourage greater use of evidence-based, best practices to push for interventions that got people into permanent housing more quickly.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of communication with different City departments and nonprofit agencies, along with discussions with experts on homelessness all over the country. I’ve learned the causes of homelessness are complex, and there’s no easy quick fix. Oddly enough, it was COVID where we learned the most.
Here are some takeaways:
- Effective interventions are done with, not to, people experiencing homelessness. If they’re not involved in the creation of the interventions, it will fail.
- When addressing homeless encampments, it’s also important to bring in all the stakeholders (Dept. of Family & Support Services, Chicago Dept. of Public Health, Dept. of Housing, CPD, Chicago Dept. of Transportation, Dept. of Streets & Sanitation, the Dept. of Law, the CARES Team, the Continuum of Care, CHA, HUD, Chicago Park District, along with area residents, businesses, area hospitals, and nonprofits). The best solutions must include everyone who interacts with the unhoused. Collaboration and a coordinated effort are paramount to coming up with solutions that will produce outcomes of getting people off the streets and into housing in a quicker manner.
- There needs to be greater promotion of case management services for people experiencing homelessness. The case manager focuses first on building trust, and then takes the lead with ensuring work is done in a coordinated and collaborative fashion. It’s counterintuitive, but when others who mean well get over involved with people in encampments, it delays getting them housed. That’s because it slows down the case manager’s efforts to build trust with the people they're serving, many of whom are reluctant to receive help for a multitude of reasons.
- Homelessness is a city-wide problem that requires a city-wide response. When every community takes on the task of doing their fair share of addressing homelessness, adequate funding for this issue will follow. (The 46th Ward has a disproportionately higher number of shelters than all the other wards in Chicago, yet it was the only ward to provide its entire $100,000 micro-grant on addressing homelessness.)
- More affordable housing is a key component for addressing homelessness. Some alders are advocating for the Bring Chicago Home Ordinance, but given around 10% of downtown buildings are in foreclosure and there’s a 21.4% vacancy rate, the unintended consequences for that ordinance first need to be identified and addressed. A better and more cost effective way to provide more housing would be through the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund (CLIHTF) which can provide rental units at 1/3 of the costs in already existing market-rate apartment buildings throughout Chicago. Providing landlords with incentives of reduced property taxes to lease out units utilizing this program would drastically increase housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition, we need to work with our federal legislators to have HUD release more housing choice vouchers.
- Per the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, after an intervention has successfully moved people from an encampment and into a safer situation, there are times when steps should be taken to prevent an encampment from returning. For instance, after a number of fires at the Wilson viaduct under DuSable Lake Shore Drive, CDOT’s assessment of the bridge’s safety in their email dated Sept. 29, 2022 included this statement:
“Overall, the structure was found to be safe for pedestrian and overhead traffic on Lake Shore Drive. But please note that the life of this bridge has dramatically been reduced because of these fires. And because of these fires, we may need to replace these bridges within the next 20 years. The reason we can prolong the replacement of these structures is because the Lake Shore Drive is not open to trucks (HS-20 semi trailers). But if these fires continue, the structure will be compromised and we may need to close it.”
Not only were the fires tragic and life threatening for those living in the encampment, but these fires are now leading to the risk of closing the Drive. It is urgent that we as a community work to house those living underneath the viaducts, and discourage encampments from returning.
I’m known in City Council for having a strong voice on the subject of homelessness due to my education and expertise in this field, but it’s time for me to move on.
For that reason, I introduced an ordinance that was passed yesterday in City Council that calls for regularly scheduled briefings to update my colleagues and the public on efforts of multiple departments and agencies on the work being done to reduce homelessness by 25% by January 2025 per the federal strategic plan by the Biden-Harris Administration.
Due to the complexity of homelessness, as it involves so many different entities, forward movement can sometimes be tedious. However, I am pleased with the direction we’re moving, and it’s my belief we will move faster when we commit to working together on proven strategies that will produce outcomes of getting people more quickly into permanent housing.