The politics of Chicago’s poor and homeless

After two weeks in downtown Chicago, I recently left the city with a lingering feeling of helplessness about the homeless. The number of poor begging for help with cups extended has grown dramatically since I walked River North to and from work in the early 1980s. I want leaders – from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to President Barack Obama – to confront the issue and do more to help people, but poverty rarely tops the political and media agenda.

So, I posted a simple question on my facebook wall: Why can't we do more to help the homeless? The question immediately generated another: “do the homeless really want to be helped? [We] can’t truly help those who won’t help themselves.” While it is true that the root of a lot of problems may be found in drug and alcohol abuse, we also can find neighborhood communities across the city that fail our youth. As I began to research the issue, my guess was that at least some who are homeless want help but cannot get it.

Among the most startling statistics is that it takes two minimum wage jobs to pay for average cost housing in Chicago, and many on the street cannot get hired for even one. Illinois appears to be turning its back on homeless by failing to even adequately support programs for homeless school children.

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My daughter-in-law knows a homeless man named Kenny. He sometimes can be found with cup extended on a bridge near the Chicago River.

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Other homeless drug addicts and dealers have bothered him. He often has heard “get a job!” shouted from passersby, but the homeless face many obstacles: criminal convictions, lack of a telephone, poor hygiene and rising frustration. On a bus from Hyde Park, and later on a north side train, we came across two men with obvious mental health and other issues. The common response on the CTA is to ignore the troubled souls.

From New York to San Francisco and cities in between, I’ve seen poverty and homelessness in the last year that seems to continue to grow. Our politicians guide the public in our collective ‘look the other way.’

Data from early this year suggest that in Illinois one in three were living at or below the poverty level.

This should be shocking, but we fail to make helping our fellow human beings the top priority. While urban unemployment in many cities hovers in the high single-digits, government data underestimate the problem. The 2013 report found that more than half of Americans will be among the poor in their lifetimes.

In Chicago, the homeless problem sometimes briefly makes news. Amid uptown viaduct evictions, a homeless man who had been interviewed died and sparked protests in late March.

As the lakefront weather warmed, though, the voices again were silenced. But, autumn is coming quickly. With it, cold winds off the lake will return. While it is rare to hear from someone on the streets, a 2012 interview with Ronald Davis provided a face and voice.

Davis was among more than 105,000 estimated to be without shelter in Chicago. The video caught the attention of Gawker and Reddit, and there were even offers to help Davis with a “care package,” a phone and job searching. Short-term help to one man does nothing to address the long-term problems facing the city and its homeless. Davis tugs at our hearts when he says he is “not a bum… I’m a human being.” Chicago has a “311” number to call for short-term assistance, but the poverty problem is larger than agencies’ available resources.

The politics of poverty in Chicago is also about race and a city that exemplifies the widening gap between rich and poor.

In 2012, Mayor Emanuel’s “Plan 2.0” budgeted $2.5 million for homeless services – a drop in the bucket given the size and scope of the problems. This is less than $24 per homeless person. Among the most salient evidence that politicians are not doing enough:

• Nearly half of Chicago’s homeless were families (47.4 percent in 2011)
• Chicago’s homeless were more than three-fourths African American (78.1 percent in 2011)
• A small percentage of homeless were employed (15 percent in 2011)
• More than one-fourth of homeless suffer from mental illness (26 percent in 2011)
• Homelessness numbers grew by more than 10,000 in the last year (116,042 during the 2012-13 school year)

The new data counted “a record 18,669 homeless students” last year – “98.3% were children of color.” From children with disabilities to teens on the street, we are failing our neighbors. Most of us see this as a problem for someone else.

One group attempted to raise awareness last year amid the lavish spending during the Nato Summit.

It is a common tactic to latch the homeless message to an event, but this strategy produces only temporary awareness. A year later, crime and violence in the neighborhoods across the city continues, and the poverty numbers are still growing.

Agencies popping up since the early 1980s mean well, but I have to wonder if they are not just responding to the immediate needs for help without finding a path ahead. Earlier this year one author asked the difficult question, “Can We End Homelessness?” A Safe Haven Foundation is one nonprofit that for about two decades has targeted “employment barriers.” They’ve reached thousands wanting to change through education and skills training. It is one model that seems to be working, but so much more is needed.

Shame on President Obama, Mayor Emanuel, other community leaders, and all of us: We look the other way and play politics with the lives of human beings. Until we make our neighbors the highest priority, it will not be possible to feel good about the future.

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