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Chicago’s Homeless Population Was Already On The Rise Before The Pandemic. Now, City Scrambles To Plan For Next Wave

When the statewide eviction moratorium is lifted, city officials expect to be grappling with another wave of homelessness. One alderman said the city needs to marshal "additional resources" to tackle the problem.

The tent city at Belmont Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway in November 2019.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The number of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago is rising in 2020 as the city continues to struggle with coronavirus.

In January, even before the pandemic, Chicago’s homeless population was already on the rise. The city’s Point In Time survey, a citywide effort to count the homeless population on a single night, found 5,390 people living on the streets or in shelters, a 2 percent increase over 2019.

January’s count was the first time the city’s seen a year-over-year increase in the homeless population since 2015. 

The count is mandated every two years by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but the city performs the count every year. The data is used to inform policy decisions and is essential in demonstrating need when applying for grant funding.

Lisa Morrison Butler, Commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, said she anticipates a rise in the homeless population because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“There are 106,000 Chicagoans who are both housing insecure, rent insecure specifically, and also work in occupations that were really heavily impacted by the first wave of COVID,” she said at a virtual budget hearing Monday.

When the statewide eviction moratorium is lifted, Morrison Butler expects another wave of homelessness. She said her department’s focus is to “be as aggressive as we can around prevention.”

The department recently reopened an online application portal for Chicagoans that are at immediate risk of eviction. Funding for the program was provided by the federal coronavirus relief package and the application process runs through November 15.

Morrison Butler estimated the number of people experiencing homelessness right now in Chicago is just under 6,000 people, but the number would be larger if the department included those who live “doubled up” in a temporary shared living arrangement.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates nearly 80,000 Chicagoans are impacted by homelessness, either living on the street or in shelters or who are housing unstable and temporarily staying with others.

During the meeting, some aldermen pushed Morrison Butler to expand outreach to those who live “doubled up,” but Morrison Butler said the need is so great among those who qualify under the federal definition of homelessness that she is “hesitant” to expand her scope.

“There are more homeless people, even in the HUD definition, than I am currently solving the issue for,” she said. “I’ve got a little less than 6,000 people that are homeless, and I haven’t solved everything for them….I’d like to solve this for the people that are either on the street or in shelter.”

The federal funds that the department relies on to provide services may only go towards servicing those that meet the stricter federal definition of homeless which doesn’t include those that live in temporary living situations.

Ald. Matt Martin (47th) argued if the department is limited in its funding by the federal definition, the City Council should find other funding.

“I think that we need to strongly consider what we can do as a city in terms of marshaling additional resources in the event that the federal government’s not helpful in terms of modifying that definition,” he said. 

In addition to the 50 shelters citywide, the department is seeking to increase the number of “low-barrier” shelters where the rules to enter are lower, such as allowing people who are struggling with addiction to enter the shelter if they are intoxicated or high.

“Right now a lot of our shelters have lots of rules that make it difficult for people who are chronically homeless or battling addiction to feel like that can take us up on that offer,” Morrison Butler said.

The Department of Public Health is also launching a program to provide medical outreach to “continuous” riders of the CTA.

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