Down for the Count: A night on the streets with Chicago’s homeless

photo courtesy of flickr user V31S70
In Chicago, 5,922 people are currently estimated to be homeless. This figure was derived from the 2007 point-in-time count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); it is used to determine the federal funding that homeless assistance agencies receive. The Chicago Department of Family & Support Services, together with the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, coordinates these biennial point-in-time counts of the city’s homeless. This year’s survey took place the night of January 27, between 9pm and 2am. Single-digit temperatures and falling snow ensured that only the most unfortunate would be left on the streets. The counts are always held the last week in January for this reason.

Eight different agencies throughout the city served as headquarters in conducting the survey. Outreach organization Featherfist was the lead agency for the South and Far South Sides; volunteers–all participation is on a purely voluntary basis–were to meet at the Featherfist office at 7pm for training. The office is located inside the South Shore Business Center at 75th and Crandon, a nondescript block of a building that recently lost some of its tenants after a frozen pipe burst.

Two police cars sit near the entrance as we approach the building. Shivon Brown, a data entry operator at Featherfist, greets us at the door. She motions to a sign-in sheet, shows us the conference room where training will be conducted, and informs us that there are refreshments in the back. But first, we have liability release forms to fill out.

We’re some of the first to arrive. Police officers congregate while volunteers sit patiently in the conference room. Darlene Jones-Lewis, a Grants Research Specialist with the Chicago Family & Support Services Department, sits in the back row. Alessandra Budnik, from the Office of Budget & Management, has also arrived to help. It is the second time she’s participated in the point-in-time count; for Jones-Lewis, it is the first.

“I guess I was interested in coming to participate in the count because the department I’m in is responsible for the surveys,” Jones-Lewis explains. “We’re responsible for the training, for the development…Being a first-time participant, I want to make sure they’re giving the right instructions.” Budnik has similar intents. “[I want to] better get to know my department’s operations,” she states.

Aside from shelter employees, the volunteers consist almost entirely of city officials. They come from a variety of departments–Family & Support Services, Budget & Management, the Health Department–that will work in various ways with the data collected tonight. The numbers are not just used to allocate federal funding; they are a statistic vital to the city’s Plan to End Homelessness.

***

“The Mayor has an objective, and that is to end homelessness in ten years,” Jones-Lewis explains. In 2003, Daley endorsed the initiative. The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness calls for the transition from reliance on the shelter system to more stable, permanent housing. Various city departments cooperate to use demographics gathered from the point-in-time count to better anticipate demand for social services, such as emergency shelter and food supplies. According to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, the overall homeless population in Chicago has decreased over the past twelve years; the total number of homeless families decreased by twenty-four percent between 2005 and 2007. However, the number of chronic homeless people–disabled or disordered individuals who have been homeless for over a year or four times within three years–has increased six percent in the same time frame.

At the moment, there are ninety operational shelters in Chicago. There are 6,716 units of permanent housing, a seventy-one percent increase since the Plan went into effect, and more than 2,000 beds are allocated to interim housing. In addition to crisis intervention and immediate support services, the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness also focuses on homeless prevention, providing short-term financial assistance to households at risk of their homes. The City of Chicago spends about $6 million of its $169 million annual budget on prevention services, serving nearly 7,000 households annually.

Lorrie Walls, Assistant Director of Grants, Research & Planning at the Department of Family & Support Services, emphasizes how important the data are in determining the city’s homelessness trends. “We try to measure our progress in terms of service delivery and the point-in-time count, [measured] against the 10-Year Plan,” she explains. Her office interacts primarily with the Office of Budget & Management, which then relates to the Mayor’s Office to prepare reports for HUD applications. Point-in-time count results are typically released in the spring, but the federal budget allocations are not announced until December.

***

Eight o’clock comes and goes. Only twenty or so volunteers have arrived thus far, but the room fills up over the next half hour. A woman strides into the room. Sharply dressed in a black sweater and crisp khakis, with a chic pair of rectangular glasses and her hair pulled back tight, she assumes control of the crowd.

“I am Stacey Anewishki,” she declares. “I’m here to go over what you’ll be doing this evening, answer any questions, and send you out there.

“This is a HUD-mandated point-in-time count. We go out–always on the coldest day of the year!–and try and hunt down the homeless, those chronically homeless folks,” she explains. We are to be divided into groups of three or four and assigned to certain neighborhoods throughout the South Side. Each group is given a map; one member will be in charge of navigation. Another will be team leader. We are to survey each homeless individual we meet, asking questions regarding the frequency and duration of their time on the street; other questions cover substance abuse, mental illness, and former incarcerations. We are not to approach anyone in parks, young people gathered in groups, or sleeping persons–doing so could potentially put us in danger.”

A volunteer raises her hand. “Not that I expect this to happen, but if you’re just talking to someone and they attack you, do you defend yourself?”

“Uh, yeah!” Anewishki answers with a laugh.

The training continues. There are seventy-three volunteers gathered at Featherfist. Most are older women who work for the city. A handful are younger. A handful are white. A few have even been homeless themselves and, having benefited from Featherfist’s help, now volunteer to return the favor. Twelve police officers are among those on hand to assist with the count; they’ll follow the groups surveying more dangerous areas. One officer interrupts Anewishki with a question.

“Lady, these locations–how do we do this? Do we just go out…?”

“You got maps, don’t worry,” she responds assertively. “I’ve been here since eight planning.” It seems she is one of the only people in the room with a firm grasp of how the count will pan out. As the meeting comes to a close, she begins to read out names, indicating who will be in each group. Individuals gather in clusters, introducing themselves; as more groups are identified, order breaks down. Volunteers scramble to pick up their surveys–all of which must be returned at the end of the night, completed or not–as well as hats and gloves, which will be handed out to the homeless we encounter. Some who have come with friends or co-workers ask to switch groups, so they can stick together.

We’re paired with Mable Seanior, an administrative assistant at the Department of Health. She has worked there for thirty years, and it is her first time volunteering at the count. She heard about it through an email at work. She chalks her participation up to “being nosy”–“I just came out to see what it’s like,” she explains.

The fourth member and leader of our group is Steven Saunders, the Executive Liaison at Featherfist. He will also be our driver for the evening. As we make our way to his car, he details the night’s proceedings. We will be covering the New City neighborhood, which stretches from Wentworth and 37th to Damen, driving until we see potentially homeless individuals. We are then to stop the car and walk the area, attempting to survey any homeless we meet. We are to work in pairs, one male and one female, focusing our efforts on bus stops, liquor stores, gas stations–public places where those without shelter are likely to gather.

Relative populations of homeless in and out of shelters during the January 2007 point-in-time count
Relative populations of homeless in and out of shelters during the January 2007 point-in-time count; graphic by Sam Bowman

Steven Saunders is a portly man with gray hair and a paternal, reassuring demeanor. Born in housing projects on the West Side, he moved to Woodlawn in his youth, and lived in Hyde Park while he attended high school. He still frequents the area often; he works for the RainbowPUSH Coalition in Kenwood. He also gives urban sociology lectures at thirty different universities across the Midwest, and serves as a minister at West Point Baptist Church. He has worked at Featherfist for fourteen years.

Founded in 1984, Featherfist is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization that aims to eliminate homelessness by providing assistance and fostering self-sufficiency. The agency maintains more than 300 interim housing units at various shelters across the South Side; each is specialized to help with different subsets of individuals, such as single men, women with large families, and women in recovery. The organization also runs a permanent shelter facility, Shelter Plus Care, for those who need extra help maintaining their daily lives. Altogether, Featherfist operates ten different programs and serves more than 1,000 clients each year. Many will use the shelters for months at a time, but the goal is to transition them to permanent housing.

Each person must participate in a housing readiness program. Upon completion, Featherfist works with landlords to provide stable homes, negotiating rents and sometimes using the city’s Emergency Funds program to subsidize costs. Featherfist employees check up on the newly-housed weekly for the next month as they adjust. This goes on, albeit less frequently, for some months afterward. The organization employs seventeen case managers who travel the city–much like we were–in search of new homeless individuals to help, continually restarting the cycle.

Our first stop on tonight’s count is Kevin’s Hamburger Heaven, at Pershing Road between Parnell and Wallace (which is technically Bridgeport–we’d often end up surveying areas outside our assigned neighborhood). We walk in and look at the menu overhead, pretending to contemplate our orders, while Saunders asks two male patrons if they’ve seen any homeless people we could survey. None of the customers or staff knows anyone. He gets a milkshake and we leave. Back at the car, a young man approaches and tries to interest us in buying a large mirror. Saunders declines, but introduces himself and explains what we’re trying to do.

“Do you know of anyone around here who is homeless?” he asks.

“Yeah. Me.”

Two of us then get out of the car, hat and survey in hand. The man, a young guy in his mid-twenties, cooperates; Saunders offers him his card and encourages him to contact Featherfist for an intake interview.

As we continue our search, Saunders discusses the state of homelessness in Chicago. “Homelessness is really like any other strata in society,” he explains. “Some people are homeless in the community, but they are still part of the community.” But, as Saunders reminds us, “This is a group with no political power, no purchasing power that’s measurable.” The issue is exacerbated south of the Loop; while homeless people tend to live more communally farther north, he explains, “isolation is imposed on the South Side.” The area around Sheridan and Belmont is known as the “Tramp Trail,” due to its highly visible, tight-knit homeless communities. The housing support system is more extensive on the North Side, where there are more operational shelters and food pantries. Without such a well-organized shelter system, “the homeless on the South and West Sides tend to be a little more invisible,” Saunders says.

***

A young man walks along the side of the road, head down, in no particular hurry. We debate pulling alongside him and asking if he knows of any homeless persons in the area (the evening’s standard approach), but ultimately choose not to. He turns off the main road, onto a residential street. Maybe he’s heading home? Either way, he won’t be in our night’s tally. Deciding who to approach is hardly a science. Quality of clothing is a factor. Size of the group is another, as well as location–parks, remote areas, abandoned buildings are all off-limits. Police officers working with the search will go in later to explore. Park patrols and CTA officials assist in the count as well. Everyone in shelters is tabulated and added to the final total; distinctions between “sheltered” and “unsheltered” are provided in the reports.

Some individuals seem distinctively homeless. We stop the car to approach a woman at 47th and Halsted. She drags a shopping cart full of bags behind her. (“Homeless people, they’re just like pack rats,” Saunders explains, “They have their stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to them.”) However, she refuses to participate. Surprisingly, she’s the only one who turns us down all night, but there are others who probably would have. Driving by the Garfield Red Line stop, we pass a man with a sign asking drivers for spare change. We don’t stop. “He’s an entrepreneur–what would be the advantage of him stopping to take a fifteen minute survey?” Saunders reasons. “Being homeless is a part of the way they make money…These people are more self-sufficient, they’re gonna have fifty to a hundred dollars by the end of the night.”

The survey continues. We stop at liquor stores, gas stations, and bus and rail stations. Around midnight, Saunders takes us to a new location: the Chicago Police Department, at 51st and Wentworth. Over forty sleeping bodies are sprawled across the floor; most are men with sleeping bags, blankets, and bundles of clothes. But the trip is for naught–other survey groups have already visited the station, as several of the men angrily inform us. We’re not the cause of their irritation, however; that honor belongs to the city officials who have just arrived.

“Human Services is here,” a female police officer announces. “If you don’t talk to them, you gotta get up outta here. This is not a shelter; this is the Chicago Police Department.” The Department of Human Services staff members take down names of those willing to go to a shelter for the night. They’ve brought a white Ford Econoline, which seats eight to fifteen passengers, for transport. The city has about seven running on any given night; if there’s not enough room, more will be sent to accommodate. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue, though–many choose not to go. Strict shelter rules, the likelihood of theft or altercations, and the mandatory check-out at 5:30am are strong deterrents from going. Saunders expects many to return to the streets as they leave the police station. He instructs us to observe the directions they take; they might lead us to other homeless individuals. And “it’ll tell us about their resourcefulness,” he explains. “If you’re going to camp out, you need a kind of moxie, you know, a certain confidence.”

Locations of homeless found outside of shelters during the January 2007 point-in-time count
Locations of homeless found outside of shelters during the January 2007 point-in-time count; graphic by Sam Bowman

As the economy worsens, homelessness figures should only be expected to rise. But the numbers right now are surprisingly stable. “We have not yet actually seen an increase in the usage of the shelter system,” Jim LoBianco, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Homeless Services, explains. “However, from our community service centers…demand has increased significantly, so people are definitely looking for more support.” Between 2007 and 2008, requests for supportive services such as emergency food boxes doubled, and requests for rental assistance were up twenty-three percent. Statewide, the news is more discouraging. A January 15 press release from Housing Action Illinois claims that the use of shelters “significantly increased during [the] second half of 2008.” In December 2008, it claims, “Seventy-one percent of state-funded providers of overnight and transitional shelter reported serving an increased number of people experiencing homelessness compared to six months previous” and “more than one-third, thirty-five percent, of agencies reported an increase of more than ten percent.” But much of this increase, LoBianco suggests, stems from the suburbs.

5,916 emergency shelter beds are currently available, spread across ninety different shelters throughout the city–”more than enough capacity,” LoBianco asserts. “During the cold emergency a couple weeks ago, we had anywhere from 700-800 vacant beds on any given night, so we have plenty of beds available.”

Regardless, the city is actively working to procure funding from the economic stimulus bill currently working its way through Congress. According to Bob Palmer, Policy Director of Housing Action Illinois, homelessness support agencies from across the country lobbied for $2 billion for the Emergency Shelter Grant Program, $10 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund, and $10.6 billion for housing choice vouchers, which help people to pay their rent on an ongoing basis. The current proposal however, only includes $1.5 billion to help fund homeless shelters, and neither the National Housing Trust Fund nor voucher program receives any allocations. “In Congress, the House is going to vote on the economics in the package in the next day or so,” Palmer explains, “so we’re reaching out to Senator [Dick] Durbin, saying that we want to make sure that, at minimum, this money for [shelters] will stay in, and if there are options for increased funding, we ask him to support those.”

Both Palmer and LoBianco stress the importance of the package. “Mostly we’re just trying to keep the resources that we have,” Palmer explains. “Any new dollars that are created are going to be created out of the stimulus package,” states LoBianco.

***

One of the last stops of the night is Provident Hospital at 51st and Vernon. Hospitals, like police stations, often function as shelters of last resort; they are both public service institutions, and can be used by people with no place else to go. Unlike police stations, however, they are not always so accommodating, and often turn the homeless away unless the weather is severe. “You can’t just sit here unless you’re here to see a doctor,” the attendant informs us when we ask if any homeless are using the space. “Or you call DHS [Department of Human Services].” He does not let us enter the building.

Outside, the snow begins to stick to the ground. A lone man in his fifties shuffles along the side of the road. We approach him. He is homeless, and suffers from a variety of ailments, including arthritis and deteriorating vision. He receives disability pay from the government. He’s decided to use some of that money to buy a pet dog.

“You gotta see my puppy!” he cries as we’re heading back to the car. We oblige, waiting as he pulls paper after paper from a Ziploc bag. He finds the one he’s looking for and unfolds it.

“They said it was an English mastiff, but it’s a bullmastiff…He was on sale!”

We nod along, complimenting him on the choice.

“I just need a shelter so bad for me and my puppy…”

Saunders gives him his card. We wish him a good night as he stands there, his papers scattered below him on the freshly fallen snow.

***

“This is not something that you enjoy doing,” Saunders confesses. “Over time, you discover that people may be broken or fractured in many ways, but that is not far off from where you might be…What I think is, I could be homeless myself, but I’m not.”

The roads are slick as we make our way back to Featherfist to drop off the seven surveys we’ve completed for the night. We’re informed of two people sleeping in Washington Park; we make a note of it, but don’t survey them–parks are off-limits, and we’re not to wake anyone anyway. It’s a relief to be finished; it’s been a taxing affair. It’s difficult to imagine doing this sort of thing day in and day out, and just experiencing it for one night evokes newfound appreciation for these dedicated public servants. But for Saunders, it’s just part of the job.

“I wish I could tell you something stirring and noble,” he muses. “I’m not stirring and noble. I just feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

photo at top courtesy of flickr user V31S70

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