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Hunger is growing for homeless and poor Human service providers to Rahm: ‘tenor of hostility’ hurts their work

Thu, Mar 28, 2013

Hara Jonathan [right] and Ansel Dean distribute food at the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to meet with human service providers to craft a city-wide plan for implementing homeless services after nearly 100 of them signed a letter that urged him to “restore civility, compassion and judiciousness to the discourse on public policy that affects Chicagoans who experience poverty, hunger and housing insecurity.”

Emanuel’s promise for a meeting quickly superceded the group’s plan for a March 13 press conference. The signers had intended to present a show of force and to call for “a collaborative, city-wide approach to ending homelessness, along with critical safety net services for at-risk Chicagoans,” according to the letter.

Recent media stories focused on “specific neighborhoods” but the group sought a city-wide focus, Jim LoBianco, organizer of the press conference, said an email to the human service providers. The reference was to the 46th ward, where Ald. James Cappleman has sponsored an ordinance that would outlaw cubicle hotels and had asked the Salvation Army to remove its six times weekly mobile outreach van, an idea since rescinded.

“Recent instances of highly publicized antagonism toward disadvantaged Chicagoans are troubling,” said the letter to Emanuel from the human service providers. “Efforts to scapegoat those less fortunate—and the institutions that serve them – undermine progress toward a healthier community.

“Moreover, a tenor of hostility toward residents who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, hunger and housing insecurity could jeopardize the carefully laid plans that you have sensibly spurred to end hunger and homelessness.” This reference was to Emanuel’s endorsement last August 23 of Plan 2.0 to End Homelessness, which was crafted by the human service providers. The City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness jointly administer Plan 2.0.

In addition, the letter called for Chicago to “increase – and not diminish” its housing stock affordable to very low-income people. It also called for “food, shelter, supportive, housing, behavioral health and medical services provided in communities where the need is greatest.”
The letter urged Emanuel to enforce city-wide homeless operations, rather than a ward-by-ward approach. “While some geographic areas warrant more targeted services than others, all of Chicago has a stake in responding to the plight of needy residents.”

In addition to StreetWise, initial signers of the letter include Dr. Nonie Brennan, CEO of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness; David Ernesto Munar, president/CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago; Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; the Rev. Dr. Sid L. Mohn, president of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights; Mark Ishaug, president and CEO of Thresholds. Later signatories include A Safe Haven, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Haymarket Center, Featherfist, LIFT-Chicago, The Night Ministry, the Salvation Army, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, The Cara Program, TPAN, Uptown People’s Law Center, Vet Net and the Woodlawn East Community And Neighbors Inc.

Capt. Nancy Powers, director of the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, said March 8 that Cappleman had dropped the 30-day eviction notice for its homeless services van that he announced March 1. The mobile van stops at Wilson and Marine Drive for two hours each morning Monday through Friday.

Powers said that what Cappleman did not understand is that food is merely the draw for homeless services, not an end in itself.

“He said he did not want us to provide food, hats, gloves, scarves or any tangible items,” Powers said. “Our caseworkers could come but any other services he did not want. We said those services were our calling card. To put two caseworkers in lawn chairs just would not work. Nobody’s going to come and see them.

“He actually said feeding is bringing people to his ward, that’s not a direct quote but information he shared. He kept using the word ‘disincentive’ ”[toward ending their homelessness].

Only a quarter of the Salvation Army’s mobile outreach van is devoted to food, Powers said. The middle section has office space with computers and phones where caseworkers can talk to clients. It offers holistic assessment of their needs, from substance abuse to mental health, always with a look to a treatment plan that leads to housing.

One caseworker on the mobile outreach van specializes in mental health and the other in substance abuse, but both handle housing. A chaser van follows the outreach truck so that a person who decides to go into a detox program can be driven to the front door and escorted through intake.

“When the iron is hot we strike,” Powers said. “That makes a huge difference. When they say they are ready, we get them right into the program. We don’t give them another chance to use [substances].”

Last year, the mobile outreach van saw 348 people and in 2011 there were 439. Overall, there were 787 unduplicated people for the two years.

The mobile outreach van visits five sites in Chicago and just that day Powers had met with another alderman who wanted it in his ward. She declined to say whom. “We’re looking to see if we could squeeze in one more [site],” she said.

The Salvation Army also has a mobile feeding truck that visits 22 different locations in Chicago. Its numbers have also risen steadily since the recession, said Christine Henry, Salvation Army director of homeless services, in an email.

In 2008 the feeding truck served 107,838 meals, rising to 130,275 in 2010. The number dropped slightly in 2011, with 126,067 meals served. Last year, however, it served 143,108 meals.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository supplies 650 member food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across Cook County. In the past five years, the Depository has seen an 84 percent increase in the number of people who need food, according to Bob Dolgan, vice president of communications for the Depository.

Food storage unit at the American Indian Center of Chicago.

The term the Depository uses is “food insecure:” people who are uncertain as to where, when and how they are getting their next meal. One in 6 people in the county are currently food insecure. Dolgan cites challenges in getting food, particularly since last year’s drought.

“First, food prices have gone up, making it harder for people to make ends meet. It costs more to buy groceries, so people need to turn to a pantry,” said Dolgan.

The Food Depository itself is having difficulties getting food, he said, because the high prices have other effects. The Depository purchases some of its own food and is encountering the same high prices as other customers. In addition, the amount of government food the Depository receives has gone down.

“When prices are high, it means not as much food from government programs because their dollar doesn’t go as far,” Dolgan said.

Another big portion of the food distributed by the Depository comes from manufacturers who have a batch of product that is definitely edible but does not meet quality control for some reason. Since the recession, the food industry has become more efficient and the Depository is receiving less and less of this excess food.

Food Depository listings in Uptown’s 60640 ZIP code include five soup kitchens, eight food pantries and a produce mobile. StreetWise visited four of these food distribution outlets and telephoned one more. Food pantries saw an increased demand since the recession, while soup kitchen attendance was decreasing.

At Care for Real, 5341 N. Sheridan Road, food serves as the same gateway as it does for the Salvation Army mobile outreach van. Care for Real does it all: Food. Clothes. Job placement. Classes for new immigrants. Client service referrals. Even a pet pantry. The need seems to have increased since the recession. In 2007, Care for Real served 10,000 people while last year, its clients numbered 53,000.

“We are experiencing record numbers of folks coming to Care for Real,” said Lyle Allen, the director of development. “And I don’t expect those numbers to decrease any time soon. We’re one of the only agencies like this anywhere in this neighborhood.

“There’s definitely a need for more organizations like ours throughout the Chicago neighborhood.” Allen added. “Not only through food distribution, but through other free programs and services. It’s not only helping to help folks in need to survive, but it’s also building community with people that are going through very rough times.”

With a large number of both young families and senior citizens, Care for Real sees people going hungry to feed their pets, Allen said, which is why the organization started a pantry that served 3,000 pets last year.

“I’m proud of the fact that Care For Real is a welcoming environment that folks can come in for a little dignity and respect,” Allen said. “That’s not something that they really experience everywhere else.

“The face of the homeless is no longer the person, the homeless guy that some people picture that’s on the street corner. It’s everyone’s neighbor, and friend. It could be a colleague. It’s a quiet majority of people in our very own community who are suffering.”

The American Indian Center of Chicago, 1630 W. Wilson Ave., opens its pantry doors every Thursday to a diverse population of white, black and Latinos.

Once inside, guests circle tables to select their items. One table has bread and pastries. Another has canned goods—the pantry has to push those when there isn’t enough meat to go around. Then there’s the “random” table. At the end the guests can take whatever they’d like of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Hara Jonathan, the pantry’s social services coordinator, explained that most participants live in SROs or studios with perhaps three or four homeless clients each Thursday. As many as six homeless people, however, might come throughout the week because they know Jonathan will always have something for them.

“We tend to save the sandwiches or the pop cans [for the homeless]. Chips. Whatever you don’t have to heat up,” Jonathan said. “We’ll give them plastic ware. We’ll give them plastic bowls.”

Generally, there are more homeless and non-homeless guests at the end of the month when their food stamps begin to run out. “So the last two weeks of the month is when they’re struggling to make it to the end,” Jonathan said. “We have to know how to ration our food that we have ’cause we don’t know what we’re gonna get from the food depository.”

On the east side of Uptown, St. Thomas of Canterbury, 4827 N. Kenmore Ave., runs a Tuesday and Friday soup kitchen and pantry that also provides clothing. Its specialty is fixed income families with children.

The majority who visit the pantry are not homeless, said Christine Pao, business manager. “People come because they’re short on food. More come for groceries than the hot meal. Most people like to cook for themselves if they can.”

Soup kitchen attendees dropped 40 percent in the last few years while the food pantry usage has risen 40 percent since 2008. St. Thomas has been offering aid programs for the past 30 years.
On Wednesday nights, the soup kitchen at Our Lady of Lourdes, 4641 N. Ashland Ave., carries on a 32-year tradition of serving the homeless. The food is donated by parishioners and goes directly to clients, some of whom have been coming to Our Lady of Lourdes for food for over a decade.

“I would say about 5 percent of the people who come are first-timers. The rest are repeats,” said Tim Morse, director of the Our Lady of Lourdes soup kitchen. “I think the majority are homeless. We don’t advertise but we’re known by the agencies.”

Our Lady of Lourdes does not do social services, apart from a clothing drive in December and a Christmas present drive within the parish. Ramon, a longtime client of the soup kitchen, is no longer homeless, but he has lived on the streets twice. He is frustrated by seeing the same faces on the street, despite organizations designed to help people get off the streets and into homes.

“They’re supposed to have programs to help people get out of their situations, not to stay in it,” said Ramon (who declined to give his last name). “The people I see are the same people who were here when I was out here. They’re still out here.”

Finishing up the daily Two Li’l Fishes lunch program at Preston Bradley Center.

Every day but Wednesday, men and a few women show up at the Two Li’l Fishes lunch program of the Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Ave.

“We consider it a community lunch because we are free, we are open to the public, and there’s no obligations,” said Will Pruit, volunteer coordinator. “People don’t have to sign. They don’t have to show ID. Don’t have to belong to anything. First come, first served – no privilege.”

The center doesn’t keep record of where guests live because it doesn’t want to intrude on their privacy. But Pruit estimated that about 40 percent stay in a shelter and the others live in low-income arrangements. Most guests are men over age 25; about half of them come four to six times a week.

“Our guests are all 100 percent at-risk,” Pruit confirmed. “They could be aging. They could be homeless. They could be physically or mentally disabled. They could be a victim of domestic violence, they could be addicted to drugs or alcohol, they could be chronically unemployed…we never ask those kinds of questions.

“We do know that virtually every single person that comes down here is here because they face, what we call, malnourishment,” he said. “And malnourishment, to us, is the inability to maintain at least one or more of the three decent meals a day we consider normal in this country.”

Pruit said that even if the guests do have stable housing, many SROs do not have kitchens and do not even allow microwave ovens. “For some of the guys that come here, especially the older guys, this is half the decent food they get in a week,” Pruit said.

Uptown has the resources to end homelessness, Pruit said. What is needed is better collaboration and communication with the public.

“It would be nice to see the folks who provide not just food service but all the social services in this ward start to come together and have a form that they not only communicate among each others as to mission resources, problem areas, but they start communicating to the ordinary residents of the community.”

By Suzanne Hanney, Ethan Ross & Ellen Garrison
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief & Editorial Interns

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