It's going to take more than housing to help Chicago's homeless population

I was pondering the plight of the homeless in Chicago a few days ago as I looked at the week's weather forecast.  After a February in which temperatures at one point climbed high enough for some Chicagoans to head to the beach, March is indeed coming in like a lion.

I wonder how this affects those who live on the streets.  What's it like for them when things start to warm up, and then an Arctic blast invades the region?  They can only carry so much around at one time.  It's probably not possible to be prepared for the kind of temperature fluctuations we've been having.

Then on Wednesday, I came across Dahleen Glanton's column in the Tribune.  In this edition, she points out that while many charitably-inclined individuals have been donating food and blankets to the city's homeless, what they really need is housing.

Last year, the city formed the Task Force to Reduce Homelessness.  Among their objectives was the establishment of a pilot program to place the chronically homeless into housing.  Advocates began with the city's largest encampment, a tent community under the Lake Shore Drive viaducts in Uptown.

At the time the program launched, 90 people were living there.  While 15 people declined help, the city placed the other 75 in transitional or permanent housing.  Of those, 56 currently reside in public or transitional housing, and 17 are inactive, meaning they have moved away, gone to jail, or been sent to nursing homes because of their age.

Meanwhile, a new group of homeless has moved in, living in tents along Lawrence Avenue.  Similar encampments have sprung up across the city.

I agree that the best way to help the homeless is to get them into housing.  With an address, they can apply for jobs, enroll in school, and access social services beyond what they can get on the streets.  Many health problems can be prevented, or at least better managed, when people have a roof over their head and can meet their basic needs.

The article made me think about why many of us have a  tendency to help the homeless with basic, immediate needs (if we help at all), but not work more earnestly toward long-term solutions.

Is it because we've written them off?  Do we tell ourselves that there's nothing more we can do?  That these people don't really have much of a chance of getting back on their feet anyway, or that they choose to live this way?

Are we so accustomed to seeing homeless people that we've come to accept their situation as natural and normal?  Are we reluctant to allocate the time and resources it will take to help this segment of society become as self-sufficient as possible?

Hopefully, we don't expect the city to shoulder all the responsibility.

While the pilot program is a great, I'm not sure how much we can  expect from the city when it comes to social programs, especially placing people into appropriate housing.  Such endeavors don't seem sustainable in light of Chicago's shaky credit rating and other fiscal woes.  We've seen a marked decline in the number of shelters in recent years, and the state's budget impasse certainly isn't going to reverse that trend.

How much would the city have to keep raising taxes to expand social service initiatives?  The irony is that, in doing so, it would likely create an even greater demand for assistance, perpetuating the problem without much hope of effectively resolving it.

You have to consider the number of people who need housing, too.  According to the city's Homeless Count and Survey, there were about 5,889 people without a place to call home in 2016.  The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless places that figure much higher, at around 125,848, according to their last estimate, which was in 2015.  This statistic is so much higher because the Coalition included those who were not actually living on the streets but did not have a place of their own, living with others in overcrowded conditions.

While there's a huge disparity between these numbers, they tell us a lot.  A comprehensive initiative to combat homelessness needs to reach people who are severely at risk of ending up on the streets.

Either way, that's a lot of people to help.  Even if the city could find housing for everyone (and pay for it), how long could the city's coffers foot the bill?  One year?  Five years?  A case-by-case basis?  People would need time to become self-supporting.  For some, this could take quite a while.  For others dealing with severe disabilities, mental illnesses, and other infirmities, it might never be possible.

To help our homeless population, it's going to take more than housing.

Fighting social ills should be handled primarily by private agencies, or at least be a public-private partnership between the city and citizens.  It's not likely that we'll soon see a surge in low-income housing construction, so we will probably have to expand transitional services to help indigent residents until permanent dwellings became available.

Myriad other services and supports will be required to assist and monitor people to reduce the likelihood that they'll end up homeless again.

Those struggling with mental illnesses and addictions need counseling and related services.  Those who don't cooperate with treatment regimens pose additional challenges.

Other clients might need assistance with budgeting, job skills and placement, GED courses, and the like.  While very much needed, these outreach services come with a price tag.

Some recipients of help will also need childcare while working or going to school.  Anyone who has children enrolled in daycare knows it's not cheap.

Glanton has a good point:  While it's certainly important to provide for their immediate needs- food, warm clothing- we need to think beyond that.  Giving a tent to a homeless woman so she doesn't have to sleep in the rain is helpful, but it's not enough.

There's a lot we can do on an individual level. Giving money to transitional facilities and shelters, volunteering at food banks and tutoring centers.  Providing an occasional meal to the senior citizen down the street who is struggling to pay the rent.

The next time you see a homeless person, or pass by one of their encampments, look beyond their immediate needs and circumstances.  Think of them as people who could potentially be your neighbors and co-workers.  Consider how you can help them in the long run.

While a significant number face complex problems, there is still a lot of potential in this population.  With the right kind of support, many can become self-supporting and empowered to give back, to help others who find themselves where they had once been.

Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity.  Rather than trying to make their dire predicament a little more comfortable and leaving it at that, let's consider how we can contribute to programs that give poor people a chance to start over- and equip them with the resources that will help ensure a better outcome this time around.


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