City’s Pilot Program vs. Homelessness Another Rahm Failure

One year ago this week the City of Chicago pledged to give 75 homeless people living under the Lake Shore Drive viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence Avenues permanent housing. One year later, according to the City’s own figures, only 57% are permanently housed, which in school grade terms would be scored as an “F.”

The program was the first big initiative of the Mayor's Citywide Taskforce to Reduce Homelessness, formed 13 months ago. Both the Taskforce and Pilot Program were the responsibility of Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler. DFSS has failed to issue a final report or hold a recent public meeting to update the public on its Chronic Homeless Pilot Program.

Mayor Emanuel’s Pilot Program thus joins a long list of mayoral promises to end homelessness, that consisted mainly of … press releases:

  • In 2003, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley promised to “end homelessness” in 10 years. One look at Chicago’s streets gives the answer to what happened with that promise.
  • In 2011, Mayor Emanuel promised to “recalibrate” former Mayor Daley’s program to end homelessness in 10 years, whatever “recalibrate” really means.
  • In 2014, fresh off of hosting the NATO summit, Mayor Emanuel pledged that “By the end of 2015, there will not be a homeless veteran in the city of Chicago.”

The original goal of the major’s “pilot program” was to permanently house 75 people within 60 to 90 days, but only 18 were housed at the end of that deadline. Last year’s announcement of the program by the mayor’s press office appeared to take most of those charged with implementing it by surprise, leading them to scramble to switch money from other worthy programs, rather than truly making a dent in helping Chicago’s poor.

On August 3, 2016, DNAInfo reported that “The pilot housing program will conclude when all active pilot participants have been housed, [Chicago Department of Family and Support Services spokeswoman Jennifer] Rottner said.” Instead, it appears as though this summer’s projected Lake Shore Drive bridge viaduct reconstruction will put the program effectively to bed -- by evicting the homeless “tent cities” encamped there.

The Uptown Tent City viaduct homeless are only part of Uptown's larger homeless population, and Uptown is only one of 77 Chicago Community areas which have homeless in need of housing. The pilot program was originally designed to help to 75 viaduct homeless – due to the publicity generated by their prominence on the city’s lakefront and corresponding political embarrassment to Uptown Alderman James Cappleman and Mayor Emanuel.

But the need for affordable housing, homeless shelter space, and other housing options is so much greater than the Pilot Program was designed to test. While Chicago's most recent, January 2016 “point-in-time count” found only 5,889 "chronically" homeless in the city, most experts on homelessness reject these figures as dramatic under-counts. A recent Chicago Coalition for the Homeless study, for example, finds that 82,212 people in Chicago are homeless, using a much more accepted methodology of what constitutes “homelessness.”

Shelters and “doubling up” in cramped apartments are at best, temporary stop-gaps, and put people at much greater risk of violence and insecurity than permanent housing. Due to the steady destruction of moderate and low income housing in the city, “Nearly half of Chicagoans can’t afford where they live,” the Chicago Tribune reported about a study released last year.

Until there is an expansive, new program to construct large numbers of publicly-funded, affordable housing units, the only new housing constructed in the city will continue to be “high end” units out of reach to most Chicagoans. More and more of us will be “housing challenged” as the decades’-long trend of incomes not keeping pace with the cost of living continues, and more and more will join the ranks of the homeless.

With the Chicago Housing Authority sitting on nearly ½ billion dollar surplus and a rare over-funded pension, the failure to build affordable housing is a political failure, not a fiscal one. Bowing to the desires of Chicago’s powerful private real estate interests and campaign contributors, Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley, and their aldermanic allies such as James Cappleman, have purposely presided over the net destruction of a huge swath of Chicago’s affordable housing stock so as stoke the profit margins of large developers and landlords.

The mayor, with his ample corps of in-house media specialists, can continue to churn out press release after press release heralding his latest token efforts to address homelessness, violence and other hot button issues in our city. But until there is secure, permanent housing for all, a guaranteed minimum national income, and full provision of medical and mental health services, we will never see a dramatic decrease in Chicago’s and the nation’s notoriously high rates of violence and other social ills.

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