Chicago Homeless, Housing First, Ending Homelessness
Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness

HOMELESSNESS 101

This section addresses three key topics:

Who is Homeless in Chicago and Why Are They Homeless?
How Many People Are Homeless in Chicago?
Chicago's Response to Homelessness

Who is Homeless in Chicago and Why are They Homeless?

People who experience homelessness are not a monolithic group. Many different kinds of people experience homelessness, and for different reasons.

People who are homeless are generally categorized into three groups:

Episodic:

These are individuals and families who go in and out of shelters. They tend to be younger, leave shelters when they get income, or use shelters seasonally.

Transitional:

These tend to be individuals and families who become homeless due to a housing, health care or other financial crisis. They come into the shelter system and remain there about three months, and often do not become homeless again.

Chronic:

These individuals and families have been homeless for a year or more, or four times in the last three years. Many of these people use the shelter system for extended periods of time and are thought to consume 50 percent or more of total shelter days.

In addition to the three categories listed above, there are a number of homeless sub-populations who face special circumstances in escaping homelessness. These include:

  • People suffering from severe mental or physical illness or chronic substance abuse.
  • Households experiencing domestic violence.
  • Ex-offenders or people released from institutions with no place to go.
  • Youth who have been thrown out of their houses because they are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender or are pregnant, or have left because there is abuse.
  • Immigrants/undocumented individuals who can't find work or housing because of lack of documentation, language and cultural barriers.
  • Veterans, including individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorders.

How Many People Are Homeless in Chicago

There is no agreed upon definition of who is homeless, nor is there an authoritative count of how many people are homeless in Chicago.

For example, a recent one-day census organized by the City of Chicago found 5,170 people either staying in shelters or living on the street in the City of Chicago. This number is down 18 percent from 2007, when a similar survey found 5,922 homeless individuals. There was an overall 15 percent drop in the number of homeless individuals between 2005 and 2009.

The City's count is based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homelessness: "when an individual lacks a fixed, regular and adequate place to sleep or who regularly spends the night in a shelter, similar institution, or a place not meant for human habitation."

However, many organizations use a broader definition of homelessness that includes those who are "precariously housed" i.e. people who are at risk of homelessness or living "doubled up."

When this broader definition is used, the number of adult homeless grows to at least 21,000, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

But neither of these counts may include the significant number of youth who are homeless. Young people living on the street are particularly hard to count because they will rarely admit to being homeless. A 2005 University of Illinois report on homeless youth funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services found that as many as 25,000 Illinois youth are homeless.

Similarly, many others are probably not being counted accurately, including families with children and people currently in jail or other institutions who don't have a home to return to.

To develop effective solutions and monitor changes over time, the Alliance hopes to create a clearer picture of:

  • how many people are in different housing programs (e.g., shelters, interim, permanent, other specialized housing)
  • how many are unsheltered
  • how many are living doubled up due to economic hardship
  • how many are economically vulnerable, e.g., making less than $15.95 per hour**
  • how many are being discharged by different systems (e.g., prisons, hospitals) and in need of housing

**This is the "housing wage" in Illinois, which is what a household working full-time must make per hour in order to afford the average rent and not pay more than 30% of their income in rent and utilities. Source: "Out of Reach, 2006" by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Chicago's Response to Homelessness

Although hobos, transients and even "skid rows" were long familiar to most Americans, the large number of homeless individuals that began turning up on the streets of Chicago and other major U.S. cities in the 1980s was a new and unfamiliar phenomenon.

Initial responses to this new problem developed randomly, with organizations setting up soup kitchens, overnight shelters, or medical care on an ad hoc basis. Most presumed that homelessness was a temporary problem, and that if individuals and families were provided with access to shelter and food, they would quickly regain their footing.

That presumption proved wrong when the problem didn't improve but worsened. Starting in the 1990s, organizations began developing more comprehensive responses to homelessness. Most were based on the belief that homelessness resulted from specific problems, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, which required "fixing" before individuals could maintain themselves in a permanent housing situation.

As a result, systems were developed which required individuals and families to pass through a series of steps designed to make them "housing ready." These steps included: 1) entering the homeless system through an emergency shelter; 2) living in transitional shelter for 6 months; 3) living in a "second stage" shelter for two years; 4) then, finally, moving into permanent housing.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, this approach didn't work. Rather than returning to stable lives, people ended up cycling through the homeless service system multiple times. And instead of declining, the numbers of homeless individuals and families continued to remain stubbornly high.

The experiences of the last thirty years have led to the conclusion that permanent housing is a prerequisite to stability. Until individuals and families anchor their lives in a home that they can call their own, they will very likely be unable to do the other things they need to do to get control of their life: get back into the job market, effectively utilize support services or establish ties with family and other sources of support.

This approach, called "Housing First," also builds on research that indicates that the factors that contribute to a household's homelessness are best remedied once the household is housed. It also presumes that, for some, lifelong support may be required to prevent the reoccurrence of homelessness, but that placing these people in housing is a more socially productive and cost-effective approach to the problem.

Chicago's Plan to End Homelessness, Getting Housed, Staying Housed: a Collaborative Plan to End Homelessness in Chicago, embodies this approach.