CHICAGO — From Los Angeles to New York, homelessness is reaching crisis levels in major cities around the country. But in Chicago, the city’s aggressive and comprehensive response to the problem during the pandemic prevented a surge in numbers.
The city’s top policymakers in the health, housing and family services departments say they implemented a strategy to take services to the street, vaccinate those in shelters, and invest federal covid-related funds in affordable housing.
Prior to the pandemic, there were an estimated 58,000 people experiencing some form of housing instability in Chicago. On any given night, there are about 4,500 people sleeping in shelters or on the streets in Chicago.
There are many causes for the surge in homelessness, but one stands out today: the skyrocketing cost of housing, which has pushed many people into poverty, often leading to eviction, substance abuse, and other mental health issues, according to experts.
According to the national low-income housing coalition, there are currently 7 million low-income renters who cannot afford homes.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Recovery Plan directed $1 billion toward expanded housing access. The Department of Housing will use the money to create two dozen affordable housing developments in 20 city communities. That’s the largest investment in affordable housing in the city’s history. The city is also using funds to acquire unused hotels and convert them to shelters.
“The department of housing received $30 million in Chicago recovery funds, and what we intend to do with that is acquire hotels and motels that, it appears, are not going to reopen as such, post covid,” said Marisa Novara, the Chicago housing commissioner.
The housing department has also distributed more than $170 million in direct financial assistance to help residents pay rent, Novara said.
She showed WGN News the Lucy Gonzalez apartments in Logan Square, a 100-unit complex of affordable and subsidized housing built near the CTA Blue Line, so low-income residents have access to transportation.
“What that means essentially is the Chicago Housing Authority pays for the rent for half of the units and the city pays for the other half,” Novara said. “It’s affordable to people at a range of incomes, generally from about $55,000 for a family of four on down.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Family and Support Services is working to help people move from the streets to shelters, said Brandie Knazze, the Chicago department of family and support services commissioner.
“It’s not illegal to live in the street in Chicago,” Knazze said. “Our role is really to provide outreach and supportive services, so we have what we call an encampment strategy where we’ll go to a location for up to ten days bringing government resources.”
Additionally, the Chicago Department of Public Health has worked to bring medical treatment to people on the streets, and Covid-19 vaccine to people in shelters, where 70% of people received shots.
“To my knowledge, that is the best that any city did,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago commissioner of public health.
With the effort of all three departments working together, the city has been able to keep the homeless population steady, according to officials. The question, they say, is what will happen when Covid-relief money is no longer available t fund programs?
“We’ve been able to do it with federal covid funding,” Arwady said. “But is that the sort of thing we’ll continue to support sort of as a society? We think yes. it means recognizing that funding public health does not mean funding for a disease, it means funding to meet the basic health needs of the population.”