Homeless Not Hopeless

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How many Chicago public housing residents will be left homeless by the Chicago Housing Authority’s ongoing Plan for Transformation? The answer to this question should be ‘zero.’ The CHA is required by law, after all, to provide replacement housing for all public housing tenants that will be affected by the agency’s 10-year effort to demolish, rehab and redevelop the agency’s entire housing stock.

But CHA officials apparently have a different interpretation of their legal responsibilities, as indicated by the recently released numbers of residents who were relocated during 2002. According to those figures, a significant number of residents ended up outside of the public housing system altogether – despite CHA’s responsibility to house every relocated resident.

A total of 725 families were relocated out of their homes in public housing. Many of these families – 298 to be precise – went to other public housing units in developments that are not slated to be closed, like Dearborn Homes and Harold L. Ickes Homes. Twenty-six lease holders were evicted, disappeared or died. The largest group of relocated residents, 374 families, moved into the private market using Housing Choice Vouchers (commonly known as Section 8s).

Twenty-seven families moved into what CHA is calling “unsubsidized” housing. That word, “unsubsidized,” stuck in my mind. The average public housing family lives on less than $6,000 per year, or $500 a month, leaving them with much less than what it takes to rent the average apartment in the city.

Apart from CHA, there are very few affordable apartments in the city, as indicated by the 30,000 families that are on CHA’s own waiting list. So where are these “unsubsidized” tenants ending up? In our last issue, Editor-in-Chief Mary C. Johns reported on the case of Lobeta Holt, a former resident of Robert Taylor Homes who needs to carry an oxygen tank. Holt was forced to stay on her aunt’s couch after she was denied a Housing Choice Voucher and CHA was unable to find an apartment in another development accessible to people with disabilities.

CHA claims that all of the “unsubsidized” tenants have chosen not to live in CHA. Holt, however, made no such choice. If she didn’t have her aunt’s couch, Holt might have ended up in one of the city’s unofficial housing programs. The City of Chicago spent tens of millions of dollars rehabbing Lower Wacker Drive and building Millennium Park, and though city officials didn’t call them housing programs, homeless men and women quickly moved in.

The city also doesn’t call the viaducts underneath the major roads and highways housing programs. But that’s what they are, as even the city’s own employees are aware. Last month, I noticed a crew of city employees and workers from the Illinois Department of Transportation working in the viaducts on the periphery of the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood on the Near Northwest Side. I’ve seen homeless men and women living under the viaducts there for years.

They have beds and other furnishings stashed in the ledges, garbage cans near the sidewalks and even grills. On this day, though, all of those items were being tossed unceremoniously onto the backs of government trucks, headed for the trash. A worker from the city Department of Human Services explained to me that the residents of the neighborhood occasionally complain about the presence of the homeless and then the crews come out. He lamented that the city and state workers don’t have much to offer the people under the viaducts.

“The guys you see up in bridges are not wanting to get into the shelter system,” the city worker explained to me. “These are the chronically homeless. They’ve been through the system many times.” These homeless people tend to avoid the shelters because of the curfews, strict rules and crime that pervades those places, he explained.

Many of the homeless men and women have an income through odd jobs or social security. The city can offer the men drug treatment services as well as some short-term assistance with rent or a security deposit. The most important services, however, are not part of the city’s offerings. Many of the chronically homeless are mentally ill and the city doesn’t offer mental health care services or affordable apartments for the long-term.

The federal government used to provide money for both housing and mental health care but these services were cut in the 1980s during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the city worker explained. “There’s a lack of affordable housing out there and to have an apartment, you need a stable income and follow-up services,” he said.

“When you find a guy, you just try to plug them in whenever possible. “I won’t be out of work for a while.” Sure enough, the city worker was right in predicting that he will be busy for the foreseeable future. Just a few weeks after the clean-up, the homeless men and women were back under the viaducts.

Twenty-seven families might not sound like a lot. But it was 7 percent of the total number of families CHA moved out of the authority last year. The agency’s lack of concern indicates that hundreds, maybe thousands of other families will end up under the viaducts and in the city’s other unofficial housing programs.

The CHA’s lack of concern over creating more homelessness is not a surprise, of course. A major problem during the Great Depression of the 1930s, homelessness virtually disappeared after government housing programs were created. In the 1980s, when those programs were cut along with services for the mentally ill, homelessness reappeared. Even the word “homeless” had to be created to describe this new phenomenon, since the old words “hobo” and “bum” are now thought to be derogatory.

Much of the nation was in angry mood in the early 1980s and many people blamed the homeless for not working hard enough, just as they blamed single mothers using welfare for not working. By now, however, we should know better. By not creating enough affordable housing, we have only succeeded making it harder for middle-class families to find appropriate housing. By not properly funding education, job training programs or welfare programs, we have produced millions who are ill-prepared for the workforce.

We also should have learned that failing to care for everyone in our society costs all of us dearly. Each mentally ill person who is left untreated is a potentially productive citizen who will not find his or her way into the workforce and who society will take care of, when their illness erupts and sends them into our public hospitals and prisons. Each incarcerated youth requires more dollars to keep him or her in prison than it would cost to send him or her to college.

Given the overall lack of concern – even contempt – for those in need, the CHA’s diffidence over its creation of more homelessness is predictable. But there is a critical difference between Chicago public housing and the other issues I mentioned. While there is no law requiring us to house the homeless, the CHA is legally required to house its residents.

CHA is one of the few places left where compassion is not optional. The CHA’s failure to take responsibility for adding to the homelessness in the city, therefore, is worse than just our society’s everyday failures to take responsibility for taking care of those in need. CHA’s failure is a blow to all of those who respect the laws of our land.

I do believe that one day, our national mood will change and we will recognize that it is both better and cheaper to prioritize housing, education and health care over tax cuts, prison construction and military adventures. It’s better and cheaper for middle-income Americans most of all, since they are the main ones whose taxes currently pay for those military adventures, prison construction as well as the emergency mental health services, police officers, social workers and other institutions which handle crises.

The question for CHA residents is whether our society will come to a new consensus before today’s residents find themselves sleeping on couches or under bridges.

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