CHICAGO — Aldermen on Monday urged the department responsible for hundreds of millions in federal aid to help low-income Chicagoans and those experiencing homelessness to act swiftly to improve the growing “crisis.”
If approved, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget proposal will pump more than $200 million of Chicago’s $1.9 billion share of the American Rescue Plan into the Department of Family and Support Services to improve the city’s homeless shelters, give direct financial assistance to struggling Chicagoans and strengthen programs to aid the victims of gender-based and domestic violence.
Commissioner Brandie Knazze told City Council during a budget hearing Monday the department will hire more staff and award contracts to outside agencies to manage the influx of money, but aldermen pushed for more urgency to put the relief dollars to work.
The city estimated 4,477 were people experiencing homeless in Chicago during a “point-in-time” count conducted in January. That includes 3,023 people who were “sheltered” and 702-1,454 who were “unsheltered,” Knazze said.
“With the eviction moratorium lifted, with pending foreclosures, I think there’s fear that those numbers are going to escalate,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), who chairs the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate.
Osterman and others pressed for answers on how and when the “significant amount of new grant money” would be spent.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We should be expanding the shelter system, but what I’m really interested in is who’s going to make it work, so that next June, when I call you and say, ‘We passed the budget and there was supposed to be X amount that was going to help the homeless and help them be housed,’ I want to know that we’re getting to where we need to go.”
Knazze said $20 million will go toward improving infrastructure at the city’s existing shelters. The department still has funding for a rapid rehousing program left over from a previous round of federal relief dollars, but once it is exhausted, new grant dollars would be spent “over the next few years.”
The department will work with the Department of Housing on how to spend $35 million to “be creative about new ways to support individuals and so we’re working with them to look at … maybe purchasing a motel, and in the short term using that as a shelter and then long-term permanent supportive housing,” Knazze said.
More than $70 million is targeted in “immediate financial assistance programs” and legal aid, including a $31.5 million universal basic income pilot to give $500 to 5,000 Chicagoans in direct cash assistance for 12 months.
The department also will receive $20 million toward a rapid rehousing program, $10 million in workforce training aid, $20 million to help victims of gender-based violence, $30 million for youth intervention and diversion programs, $65 million to help young Chicagoans connect with job opportunities and $10 million for re-entry workforce programs to aid those leaving incarceration.
With all the new grant funding, Osterman said it is “very concerning” the department has so many vacant positions.
“There’s people in crisis, whether it’s young people, whether it’s homeless people, whether it’s senior citizens. I don’t understand why we have 25 percent of your workforce as vacant,” he said.
Other aldermen expressed concern about the number of homeless encampments throughout the city, saying the city needs to show compassion to residents of the encampments, but other residents have complained that tents and other belongings can block sidewalks.
Knazze said it cost $3,450 a week between her department, Streets and Sanitation and the Police Department to provide outreach and respond to service calls at the city’s estimated 35 homeless encampments. That includes $84,000 a year to provide porta-potties and sanitation stations.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said that is a drop in the bucket for the city budget.
“I do know that in some of our encampments on the Northwest Side, that was critically important to improving the quality of life of everyone in the community. But obviously, particularly, the residents at the encampments. I certainly hope that we continue that program,” he said.
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