Homelessness: A Constant American Tragedy

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When it comes to homelessness, the City of Chicago is going the way of Dr. Frankenstein. In the books and movies, Dr. Frankenstein did not foresee the havoc, chaos and destruction wrought by his monster. By making the monster, Frankenstein thought somehow the world would benefit by his creation. He sought to control his creation. But in the end, his monster was uncontrollable.

In the current scenario playing out in this city, the Chicago Housing Authority and the City of Chicago appear to be playing the part of Dr. Frankenstein. The monster is the CHA’s Plan for Transformation.

The Monster in the Making
As early as April, housing advocates were reporting an increase in homelessness. And in October, the Chicago Department of Human Services reported that shelters in Chicago were filled up to the maximum. Many of the homeless had to be sheltered in hotels and at times at DHS offices. Homeless service providers also reported that single mothers with children were appearing more often in homeless shelters.

The increase in the number of homeless families is evidence of a housing crisis. Housing advocates have said that Chicago’s public housing is failing to meet this housing crisis.

Catholic Charities’ 1999 report, “The Housing Crisis in Our Neighborhoods,” states that in Chicago, “the destruction of public housing compounds the affordable housing crisis.”

The CHA expects to utilize $1.5 billion in its transformation of its family and senior properties over the next 10 years. But only some of the total 25,000 units projected to be rehabilitated or newly built will be for the poor. There is no more one-for-one replacement of public housing units. Instead, CHA says it will build “mixed income communities.”

The CHA’s redevelopment plan for the Clarence Darrow Homes on the South Side is an example of these mixed-income communities. Darrow Homes was situated at the east end of the Ida B. Wells development spreading out from the corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and Pershing Road. Only 100 units are projected to replace the 480 public housing units in four 14-story high-rises that were demolished between 1996-1999.

Under the Plan for Transformation, CHA is experimenting with designing new neighborhoods. The agency wants to improve the living conditions and lifestyles of public housing residents by building these mixed-income communities on the sites of old public housing developments.

No one really knows whether these experimental mixed-income communities will work. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they may find they have created a monster.

Warning Signs
Public housing resident leaders and housing advocates say the CHA Plan for Transformation is contributing – in one form or another – to the recent surge in homelessness.

Brady Harden, president of Inner Voice, a not-for-profit organization that manages shelters for the homeless, said in early November that landlords’ dissatisfaction with the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) is a contributing factor to the surge in homelessness.

“We are seeing a higher rate of people who haven’t been able to get housing and they haven’t been able to find a Section 8 (unit). I have been talking to landlords who aren’t very satisfied with Section 8, with the process they have to go through to take Section 8. So they are choosing market rate or regular tenants as opposed to those having Section 8 certificates,” he said.

Another factor is that CHA isn’t renting out any apartments, Brady said.

“Most of our clients that are in our shelters don’t make enough income to go out into the open market to get housing. Most of our clients need public housing. The public housing entity in this town is CHA and they are not renting,” he said.

Nancy Radner, executive director of the Partnership to End Homelessness, agreed with Brady, “We can’t refer people to CHA anymore. CHA used to be the housing of last resort for people. Now the housing of last resort is the shelter system so it makes sense that people we used to send to CHA we’re seeing now.”

Lisa Elkuss, a Department of Human Services spokesperson, said the CHA Plan for Transformation is not currently a contributing factor to the increase in homelessness but could be in the near future.

“We have the statistics on (the number of homeless who were CHA residents) and it’s less than one percent. The commissioner (Ray Vasquez) did indicate in a recent news article that it is a situation we need to watch very carefully because as the transformation progresses, we need to make sure folks aren’t falling through the cracks and having to be placed in homeless shelters,” Elkuss said.

John Donohue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said he was investigating reports of homeless people at the Cabrini-Green public housing development.

“I was invited by the Cabrini-Green residents next week to their social service center to meet with all the people that work there because they are seeing more and more homeless people,” he said.

People who found themselves with nowhere to go used to be able to find shelter within CHA – either legally or illegally. Many residents and others don’t like the idea of people squatting in the buildings. But at least the CHA units were shelter. As bad as conditions are in CHA, the vacant units were better than being on the cold streets with your children. Squatting in CHA or an abandoned building was better than being in many of the shelters which offer no privacy or protection against theft.

At least one homeless service provider said many homeless people spent some time in CHA developments but may not have been on a lease. The Rev. Sanja Stinson, executive director of Matthew House, a homeless shelter at 3722 S. Indiana Ave., said in November that up to 15 percent of the increased number of homeless people there are people who formally resided in CHA with leaseholders.

“We’re getting basically individuals who have been displaced, who in CHA probably were staying with some family members and maybe there was more than one family staying in the apartment,” Stinson said.

Advocates for housing and the homeless are warning that CHA’s Plan for Transformation will destroy much-needed low-income housing just as the recession is getting under way.

Soon after he was built, the Frankenstein monster showed signs of his destructive nature. The townspeople tried to warn Dr. Frankenstein but he ignored them.

So, too, have the townspeople in south suburban areas warned City officials that a mass movement of public housing residents into those areas would ruin their communities and leave residents isolated and without city services. “Mayor Daley’s administration is taking down housing faster than people can be housed in Chicago,” said Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch at a recent town hall meeting on CHA relocation co-sponsored by WVON radio’s Cliff Kelly. “They are transferring the problem of housing low-income folks to the suburbs.”

Relocation Rights
Displacement through undue evictions or condominium conversions of former CHA residents who move out with vouchers could add to the surge in homelessness.

For those who choose the Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8), there currently are no automatic safeguards in the Relocation Rights Contract against evictions due to landlord negligence or landlords opting out of the voucher program. Robert Whitfield, an attorney that consults with the CHA Central Advisory Council (CAC), the organization that consists of elected resident leaders, said he had heard of some former residents who became displaced because their landlords converted their units to condominiums.

“This condo craze in Chicago has just been ridiculous. And I suspect it’s going to happen quite a bit,” said Whitfield after a Nov. 20 CHA Board of Commissioners meeting.

Whitfield said the CAC will have to negotiate with CHA to get some temporary housing for residents who have Housing Choice Vouchers and are displaced.

Whitfield said he wanted statistics on the numbers of landlords opting to change their units into condos. The resident leaders would then try to get CHA to provide temporary housing for residents who are displaced in this way.

“I hope somebody can get some statistics because what we may want to do is try to bargain with CHA as a person takes a Section 8 certificate and through no fault of their own, the place turns condo,” he said. “CHA initially was against that. They said, ‘Hey, that’s the chance you take if you take Section 8.'”

According to legal aid attorneys, sometimes residents are evicted because CHAC, the company that runs the CHA Housing Choice Voucher program, refused to pay the landlord their portion of rent for failed Housing Quality Standards (HQS) inspections. When the landlord takes the tenant to court, the judge normally rules in favor of the landlord for payment of the full rent.

The lawyers said the outcome of such court cases is usually the tenant’s eviction.

The tenant with subsidized income then ends up in a homeless shelter until they can find another unit within the time allotted on the voucher.

Whitfield said the CAC had no knowledge about relocated residents with housing vouchers ending up in shelters because of evictions due to the landlord’s failure of an HQS inspection.

“Nobody has come to us on that issue,” Whitfield said. “Now if that’s happening, we need to negotiate with CHA to make available temporary public housing units while the person looks for another Section 8 unit.”

Whitfield said homeless advocates defending CHA residents should read and understand the Relocation Rights Contract to better service them.

“Even if they (relocated residents) are out there on the street and they had a Section 8 certificate and couldn’t find a place, we can, even now, reach back and get them into a unit if we find out about it,” Whitfield said.

Now if (housing advocates) know about those people, they are doing them a disservice. One, because they didnt read the contract in the first place, and two, because they didn’t refer them to somebody who knows about the contract and could have done something.”

Whitfield said all relocated residents with housing vouchers that find themselves in the above predicament or in the process of eviction under the One Strike Policy should contact their LAC office to report their dilemma. Call the CAC office at (312) 791-8731 for the location and phone number for all LAC offices.

Frankenstein Nears Completion
Will CHA officials stop the monster from rearing its ugly head? Will they stop the monster from rampaging through the city and destroying housing for the poor?

Despite the warnings from the ‘townspeople,’ CHA is going forth with the Plan for Transformation, and even cutting their own projections for the number of units that will be available for residents.

A July 26 CHA news release stated that 516 units will be built during Phase I of the redevelopment of the Madden Park/Darrow Homes/Ida B. Wells. But an Oct. 10 CHA press release states that only 446 units will be built during Phase I. Before any units were even built, CHA cut 70 replacement units from their own plans.

What my Dr. Frankenstein scenario boils down to is this: CHA and city officials should increase the number of public housing units for the poor in their mixed-income communities. They should begin building the replacement units now to avoid the havoc and chaos the Plan for Transformation will cause.

Dr. Frankenstein didn’t see the warning signs. And when the monster started his rampage, it was too late to stop it. The end result was the destruction of Dr. Frankenstein, many townspeople’s homes and the monster himself.

To change the adage: A word to the wise is sufficient. To err is human, but to change the path that leads to destruction is most assuredly divine.

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