Can Chicago End Homelessness?

It is not every week that a national magazine has a story on ending homelessness. In this case it is Time and it focuses on the windy city. They also had two related articles.

One entitled “Cheering an End to Homelessness.” The blurb from Time describes this article as being about “the first national homeless headcount in a decade doesn’t offer much good news, but advocates are still harnessing the power of positive thinking.”

The second entitled “The Real Face Of Homelessness” is described as being about “more than ever, it is mothers with kids who are ending up on the streets. Bush has a plan, but will it help?”

Can Chicago End Homelessness?

Time Magazine, Thursday, May. 24, 2007
By ERIC FERKENHOFF and MATT BIGELOW/Chicago

Is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley really serious about his pledge to rid the Windy City of homelessness by 2012?

Some observers weren’t so sure after the battle over affordable housing played out between Daley and many of his doubters earlier this month in the Chicago City Council. On its face, the notion of requiring most new housing developments to reserve at least 10% of their space for people earning less than the city’s median income of $75,000, as Daley and his backers proposed, would seem like a good idea. But while the ordinance would create an estimated 1,000 new affordable housing units each year, critics say it isn’t nearly enough to help Daley fulfill his ambitious promise made more than four years ago. Why not set aside 15% and lower the income threshold to $60,000, opponents urged in a fight bitter enough to force a special City Council meeting.

Daley, sworn in Monday to his record sixth term, ended up easily getting his way. But the victory riled some critics of his campaign against homelessness, who feel that Daley’s promise — made just before the 2003 elections — has been as much about politics as policy, a showpiece meant to win favor in a city of favors, and help bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to the city.

Forcing the special meeting played directly to the mayor’s hand, since it came before a new council took office, including many aldermen who ran on a platform of higher wages and more affordable housing. Daley warned the new council Monday not to let the politics of yesteryear, of famously angry council wars, infiltrate the new body. But there is far more independence in the 50-member chamber now, with nine newcomers, including the wife of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. And many are promising to hold Daley firm on his twin promises to wipe out homelessness and create affordable housing, even as public housing projects are being rapidly demolished and vanishing from the cityscape.

When Daley first announced the plan back in January of 2003, it seemed laudable enough, if unrealistic: to ensure that by 2012, not a single man, woman or child will be left abandoned on the city streets. No more nightly shelters that have been a staple across the country. Less transitional housing that merely puts a band-aid on addictions, psychological disorders or financial disarray. No more overcrowded shelters. No more inundated health clinics.

“We shouldn’t act like [homelessness] is a normal part of American life,” Daley told TIME. “In the richest nation in the world, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should have to live without a roof over their head.”

At almost the midway point of his timetable, however, many observers say Daley’s plan is a pretty vision — of a city dressed up with flowers and new parks and without a man or woman or kid in need — but lacks a workable way to fulfill it. “The city hasn’t pledged its own wallet and that pretty much makes it impossible,” says Julie Dworkin, policy director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Although $150 million was invested in the cause last year, and some $400 million has been pledged since the plan became public in 2003, critics point out there is no fixed price tag on Daley’s plan. “Let’s just say the number would most likely be in the billions, and not the millions,” Dworkin said.

The coalition’s own 2006 report card on the Daley plan applauds the effort to build more permanent housing, but says the stock of affordable housing is actually flattening or shrinking as rich developers gobble up empty space and redevelop once ramshackle areas of town. The study, released last fall, says Daley “grossly underestimates the demand for homeless services in Chicago,” and charges that “thousands of people are likely to end up abandoned and only a limited number of people helped in 2012.”

The coalition is now ramping up pressure on the Mayor by forming an alliance of homeless shelters and other service providers, such as the Chicago-based advocacy group United Power for Action & Justice, to keep the city from shuttering or cutting funding to shelters. The coalition is so worried that Daley’s plan would cut aid that it is currently trying to work with Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich to squeeze $100 million out of an already tight state budget.

“The Mayor’s actions are not helping but hurting the situation. The system is completely hemorrhaged, backed up, since there is not enough housing on the other end,” said Samir Goswami, an associate policy analyst with the homeless coalition. “We are not going to end homelessness in Chicago by 2012 simply because our well-intentioned Mayor signed a well-intentioned plan.”

Chicago has some particularly daunting obstacles in its battle against homelessness. Some 30% of its children live in poverty; 10% of families live in extreme poverty; the homeless population is guessed at tens of thousands; and more than 100,000 people are considered at risk. Worse, the coalition’s same report found Chicago fared pathetically when stacked against other large cities in spending. San Francisco, the study found, spent more than $100 per homeless person; New York invests $37 per capita; Philadelphia, $11; Chicago, $3.

The city quibbles with the numbers, and there is much argument over what constitutes homelessness. Those who do not have their own housing, yet are able to “double up” with friends or family, are not considered homeless by the city or the federal government. Yet the coalition believes this population should be counted because they are at an equal risk.

Daley’s supporters say he should be credited with taking a big step in trying to address homelessness. “He owns the plan,” said Philip Mangano, the executive director for the U.S. Interagency Council to End Homelessness. “He is the person looking for the benchmarks to be accomplished and he is accountable to his city.” A summer 2006 report on the plan noted that more than 130 families were put into the private market and off the public trust during the first half of last year, while nearly 2,000 were helped with various forms of assistance and 35 people were “taken off the street and into permanent housing.” (A 2007 update, due out soon, will show that shelter beds now make up less than 40% of the homeless care system, down from 60% in 2003). But groups such as ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a 37-year-old advocacy organization for low income families, complain that such numbers are too small to make much of a dent in a massive problem.

“The plan won’t work,” said Brenda Faye Smothers, who spent eight months on the street. “People aren’t ready for housing. They’re too comfortable, as we say, in the shelters.” Many aldermen are equally skeptical. “It’s a laudable goal, ending homelessness and I wish him the best of luck,” says Toni Preckwinkle, who helped lead the May 7 City Council fight. “But not without the right safety nets in place, and it seems this mayor is not willing to put those there.”

The mayor, and his chief lieutenant on the project, Ellen Sahli, brush off the criticism. They note that Daley has had a record of success in tackling the city’s worst problems: he lifted the nation’s worst school system from academic poverty, razed the very high rise ghettos his father erected generations ago, and nearly halved the city’s murder rate. “I have always set high goals,” Daley said. “This is a problem that can be solved.” Many of his critics, however, aren’t sure that this is the way to do it.

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