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StreetWise staff go out in the cold to hear people’s stories

Fri, Feb 21, 2014

Suzanne Hanney StreetWiseThere’s a reason the Chicago and other cities across the U.S. send volunteers out into possibly the coldest night of January to count people living on the street. If this federally-mandated census were in summer, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish people who were homeless from others outside.

In subzero temperatures January 22, more than 200 volunteers surveyed Chicago’s homeless population during a “Point in Time” (PIT) count from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Along with WBEZ’s Shannon Heffernan, I rode with Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) Deputy Commissioner John Pfeiffer and Spokesperson Matt Smith to “hot spots” on Lower Wacker Drive and the Chicago River.

Then Heffernan and I joined a vanload of volunteers – mostly social workers employed with various agencies – who searched the South Loop and along the Dan Ryan Expressway. “Thank you for your time; this will help the City apply for federal funding,” one of the volunteers said after giving a survey. “You know you can go to any police station or hospital if you get too cold.”

We met occasional people sleeping alone but mostly groups of two to six people, mostly African-American. The oldest was born in 1951 and the youngest in 1975. All our respondents were male (although one accompanying female was asleep). Three men said they had been in prison. The questionnaire also sought to know if they were chronically homeless (was this their first experience or one of several in the past three years?). It asked if they were working, if they were veterans, if they received any kind of benefits or had any potential barriers to getting housed, such as disabilities or substance abuse.

Chicago Winter

The view from the Chicago River west of the Michigan Avenue bridge. (Chicago DFSS Photo)

Sometimes I was able to ask why someone became homeless or why they didn’t go to a shelter.

“I got caught up in the streets selling drugs trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Brian said. “It’s my fault, no one else’s. I control my own destiny. I am my own man. I can get out of it. I just need networking, people to give me opportunities.”

Brian said he did not go to the shelter for fear of being separated from his woman of 12 years. They had each other’s back, he said.

John Pfeiffer

DFSS Deputy Commissioner John Pfeiffer addresses media before the count. (Chicago DFSS Photo)


“In the shelter the gangbangers and the guys is not stable. You have to watch your stuff, a lot of things I don’t like to go through.” Gangbanging, drugs and prison were the reason he was homeless, he said. He has a grown daughter he hasn’t seen in 14 years, but he communicates with her on Facebook at the library and she told him she loved him. He is making arrangements to see her but “I don’t want her to see me like this. It’s not what a man is supposed to be, not right, very depressing.”

Another survey participant who lives under the Dan Ryan Expressway said he was “not really homeless. I just like being out here” for the last seven or eight months. “I’m a winter baby,” said Bo. He will go inside when it gets warm.

Bo had a campfire, two shopping carts, a mattress and assorted boxes. He is self-employed. “I take care of the whole neighborhood. I shovel snow, do plumbing and electric.”

The PIT count is not social workers’ first encounter with homeless people on the street. Nine non-profit organizations as well as city teams regularly engage with unsheltered people to try to build trust, Pfeiffer said.

“It might begin with accepting a hat and a cup of coffee but then eventually it might mean talking to a case manager and eventually coming in, having shelter for a night. Our goal is always to build trust, to progressively engage them and get them to see the benefit of accepting assistance,” he said.

Adriana Camarda

Adriana Camardam, chief planning analyst for the homeless division of DFSS, explains the difference between the questionnaire (left) and the tally sheet. (Suzanne Hanney photo).

During the polar vortex, Pfeiffer and other senior DFSS staff including Commissioner Evelyn Diaz manned a CTA bus in five communities where there were unsheltered people. They tried to give them a meal, blankets, socks. A few accepted shelter but most did not. “Almost to a person they said they were warm under these layers,” Pfeiffer said. “The secret is not to get wet and not to have too many layers so you sweat.”

“Sometimes it is really hard for people to come in,” Dr. Nonie Brennan, CEO of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness told WBEZ’s Heffernan.

Maura McCauley

Maura McCauley, DFSS director of homeless prevention policy and planning, interviews a homeless person on Lower Wacker Drive. (Suzanne Hanney photo).

“Think about the place where you feel safest and going to a place that is not familiar to you,” Brennan said. “You and I cannot understand why someone would stay on the street, but people who are chronically homeless are often dealing with severe mental health issues and substance abuse issues. A lot of things they are dealing with make it hard for them to change and adapt to things we might want them to do.” The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness manages more than $50 million annually in state and federal grants – for both housing and supportive services – to fulfill Chicago’s Plan 2.0 against homelessness.

People with mental health challenges, Pfeiffer said, may not understand the dangers of being outside in subzero weather. One man has been outside for 28 years because he has never been comfortable with the housing options offered to him. “Our goal is to convince him this is the year.” A portion of the mayor’s budget called “Homeward Bound” seeks to use full rent subsidies and supportive services to move 100 people into housing who could otherwise die because of their medical vulnerability.

The PIT count of the street population is normally conducted only in odd-numbered years. This year’s additional count was the result of more money coming from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) thanks to a commitment by President Obama and the VA to end homelessness among vets by 2015, Pfeiffer said. The VA has issued 40,000 supportive housing choice vouchers across the nation. Chicago’s share of these rent vouchers have gotten 293 vets off the street this year.

ABC Interview

ABC 7 Interviews a man below Columbus Drive. (Chicago DFSS photo).

PIT 2014 data will not be released until it has been analyzed. According to the 2013 draft report released last October, there were roughly 1,216 people living outside, (which was a 29 percent drop from 1,725 unsheltered persons in 2011). Another 5,060 persons were staying in shelters as of the 2013 count.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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