Homelessness is a very serious problem in every major city in the United States, especially Chicago. Over the course of a year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experience homelessness nationwide and approximately 166,000 people experience homelessness in the Chicago Metropolitan area. (CCH) These numbers are astounding, but as a resident of the city I know firsthand that our city has an extraordinary amount of homeless. While the homeless face a daily struggle to stay alive, society turns its back on them. You should you ask yourself, "How do I react when I see a homeless person?" Throughout this essay, I will examine the history, causes and most importantly, what the City of Chicago is doing to help these people.
History of Homelessness in Chicago
Homelessness has been a part of Chicago since the early days of Fort Dearborn. (Slayton) However, it wasn't until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, that it became an issue to serious to ignore. The fire that swept through the city left over 300 people dead while the damage to the city's buildings left 90,000 Chicagoans on the streets. With so many with so little, it was clear that rebuilding was going to be a long and difficult road. Eventually, the city recovered from the fire and became the hub for the meat-packing industry in the United States. However, during the depression of 1893 the city once again encountered an extraordinary amount of people without anywhere to live. The weak economy played a major role in this, but it was the city's industrial growth and position as the hub for the country's railroad system which had the greatest impact. (Slayton)
Word spread quickly of the opportunity to make a living in Chicago, and the immigrants were listening. It became a recipe for disaster; there weren't enough jobs for the overwhelming influx of people. Finding shelter not only depended upon the amount of money a poor person had, but even more importantly, the availability of low-cost shelter. Most of the low-income housing provided during this time period was privately owned. It wasn't uncommon for the poor to stay in buildings called cage hotels, appropriately named after the chicken wire that was used to seal the small rooms. At the turn of the century, more than 100,000 people lived in these cage hotels. (Slayton)
As the years passed, homelessness was a continuing problem. In 1929, homelessness reached an all time high with the crash of the stock market. The emergency housing provided by both public and private agencies increased from 1 million in 1930 to 4.3 million in 1933. It was during this time that policy change shifted primary responsibility for handling this social problem from the private to the public sector, especially the federal government. (Slayton)
Throughout the 50's, the amount of homeless in Chicago decreased substantially due to the increase in thriving business's after the war. In the early 80's, the amount of homeless began to swell again for several reasons: The economy shifted and many low-skill workers were replaced by a new high-tech job market, gentrification became popular in many low-income areas, and federal support for low-income housing saw a drastic decline. (Slayton) Since then, the city of Chicago has seen a steady increase in the amount of people who find themselves unable to afford housing.
There is no one factor that causes homelessness. Each individual has their own story of struggle which often times includes a variety of factors. Frequently, outsiders view those who are homeless to have personal problems. In some cases this may be true, but there are many who just can't seem to find a job to support living costs. Our economic and political systems are not arranged to promote equality, this makes it incredibly difficult for those who do become homeless, to get back on their feet.
The lack of affordable housing, living-wage jobs, health care, and supportive services contribute to the incredible amount of people who are forced to sleep on the streets. Unfortunately, the economy is suffering badly, as a result, job opportunities continue to decline. (CCH) The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimated that an additional seven million eligible for aid do not receive it because housing assistance programs are under-funded. (Snider, 72) This is just an example of the steady decline in Federal funding, a clear sign that homelessness is not a major priority.
It is not uncommon for people to be released from prison to find that they have no place to live. Many who are released don't have any savings or benefits and suffer from mental health or substance abuse. There isn't a large job market for homeless felons. Even public housing authorities make judgments as to who is eligible, barring many with any prior criminal history. (CCH)
Many veterans of the armed forces who have fought for our country are no strangers to homelessness. Throughout the war in Vietnam, 58,000 soldiers died. That is nothing compared to the approximately 300,000 veterans who are homeless. It's shameful that the government can't come up with a plan or the funding to take care of the people who risked their lives to defend our country. The programs that are intended to serve homeless veterans are consistently under-funded. In Illinois, only 158 beds funded through the VA's Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program are available for almost 20,000 homeless veterans. (CCH) If the government doesn't take care of their soldiers when they need them most, why should the common man serve his country?
Alcohol and Drugs have always been a serious problem among homeless people. Researchers estimate that between 10 to 15 percent of homeless people have drug problems. (Momeni, 64) Many feelings such as loneliness, depression and hopelessness can lead to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. This is a complex problem, not only does the user lose motivation and hope, but because they are homeless, many drug treatment facilities will not offer their help.
The majority of homeless are forced to the streets through a sequence compounding circumstances. Some of the many causes of homelessness are insufficient income, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence. There are many who are constantly living on the brink of homelessness. People who work low-paying jobs and survive paycheck to paycheck to cover living expenses are often one set back away (i.e. loss of job, illness) from homelessness.
Homelessness in Chicago Today
The U.S. Conference of Mayors meets once a year to discuss hunger & homelessness. Within the past year, Chicago was named as having an 'exemplary' program for the homeless. Currently, the city provides 120 temporary shelters for the homeless to stay in. The Chicago Department of Human Services provides mobile medical clinics and social workers at these shelters to help take care of homeless who require medical assistance. Chicago also provides a free phone service for the homeless. From any phone in the city, a homeless person can dial 311 and be forwarded to the closest shelter. (COCHS)
Lack of income is a common catalyst for many who find themselves homeless in Chicago. Nearly half of Illinois residents earn $25,000 a year or less. (CCH) This is a very frightening stat, especially for those who are within that category that need to support a family as well. In fact, according to the 2001 Illinois self-sufficiency standard, a family of one adult and two children would need to earn $38,281 a year to pay for all their living expenses (i.e. housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare, etc.) without any government assistance. (CCH) With numbers like these it is clear why the city is filled with people who have no home.
In 2002, Chicago implemented a 10 year plan to end homelessness. At the time, the mission statement was: "In ten years, all individuals facing homelessness in Chicago will have access to safe, decent, affordable housing and the resources and supports needed to sustain it." (COCHS) With the deadline being only four years away, it is hard to imagine that this goal can, or for that matter, ever be met.
Just recently, the Chicago Department of Housing, in support of Chicago's Plan to End Homelessness, awarded money to selected agencies: the Housing Locator Program and the Street-to-Home Initiative. The primary goal of the Housing Locator Program is to facilitate the re-housing of homeless and families who are currently in the shelter system. The staff locates private market rental units that can be made affordable to people within the shelter system. In order to qualify, individuals or families must meet the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homeless. The Street-to-Home Initiative's goal is to help find housing for unsheltered homeless who are currently residing in public areas (i.e. downtown areas, lakefront parks, etc.). The small print of all this good news is that a mere $500,000 was distributed among the agencies to provide supportive services for up to 100 individuals. (US Conf. of Mayors)
The city has been criticized recently for not providing enough support financially. The Chicago Tribune reported in December of 2006 that the number of homeless in the city dropped from 9,600 in 2004 to 6,715. However, many claim this count to be far from reality. Most cities, including Chicago, assess the need for homeless services by counting occupied shelter beds, then touring city streets to get a rough idea of how many more people are resorting to park benches, sidewalks and bridge archways. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that on any given night the number of homeless is probably much closer to 21,000. (Olivio) Homelessness isn't always short-term, the average length of homelessness in Chicago is between 6 and 8 months. (US Conf. of Mayors) If these figures are anywhere near correct, the city isn't anywhere near removing homelessness completely by their target date.
In conclusion, it isn't just the city of Chicago that has a problem with homelessness. The numbers are impossible to ignore, our entire country is suffering. Luckily, I've never had to sleep on the street, and I couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like. Anyone born with any human dignity can understand that nobody deserves to live that way. In national and local politics, homelessness isn't even an issue. You never see candidates using their time addressing the issue.
Groups such as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless are the only hope these people have. Although the city's program for the homeless was recently described as 'exemplary' in the United States Conference of Mayors, it doesn't even seem satisfactory. Homelessness is a very serious problem and it is our duties as Chicagoans to make sure that our politicians make it a priority. In the news today, all you hear about is beautifying and improving our city through public transportation improvements, or winning the bid for the Olympic Games in 2016. Quite honestly, there are many more important issues we as a city are faced with. I wonder if the Olympics would be Mayor Daley's priority if he were forced to spend a week sleeping in Grant Park?