Friday, May 25, 2007

Can Chicago End Homelessness?

Thanks to Rebecca for pointing me to this link of a Time article about the Chicago Plan to End Homelessness. She asked for my thoughts, so here is my two cents...

While I have supported the plan in concept I have always doubted that there would be enough money allocated to make it work. I think it is wonderful to have a plan and it is very motivating to work toward ending homelessness entirely. I believe we could eliminate homelessness in Chicago, but not without the political will to channel lots of money into the process and I don't see that happening. We have made progress, but not nearly enough.

Basically the plan set forth by a wide coalition of funders, homeless advocates and government officials (of which I was a contributing member) espouses the "housing first" model. This has resulted in government dollars being directed away from shelters and toward subsidizing permanent housing units.

Research has shown that people without homes are more likely to achieve stability in their lives if they are housed first. That is kind of a "na dah" to me. Of course if we could put everyone in our shelters into their own apartments today, we would. And if there were no more homeless people waiting to take their places in our shelters, I would say, let's sing the hallelujah chorus and close all of the shelters in the city!

Of course, that isn't close to the reality of the situation. Our shelters are always full with a waiting list, and we try our best to get people moved into housing as quickly as we can. We have thirty subsidized apartment units for our participants, as well as the sixty shelter beds we offer, and they are always full too.

Housing people in apartments costs about six times as much as housing them in our shelters. Some of the guests who stay with us are able to get off the dole and live on their own, paying their own rent, if given the support they need for a time in our shelter. What motivation does someone have to get and stay employed and pay their own rent if they are handed a hefty rent subsidy under a "housing first" model when they are capable of working if given a chance? And if the subsidy is all they get (supportive service dollars are not readily available) then "housing first" becomes "housing only" and people can still be living by themsleves in addiction, isolation and poverty and be growing increasingly depressed. Of course, women fleeing domestic abuse situations need special protection that is not acknowledged in a pure housing first model. I think there are lots of other special services needed such as drug and alcohol recovery programs, life skill training, etc.

I appreciate the work of the legislators and advocates that brought about recent state legislation that has added a ten dollar fee to real estate transactions. I was part of that advocacy. This is generating an additional ten million dollars per year for rent subsidies, but that will only accomodate about 6,000 people, while there are something like 70,000 on waiting lists for subsidized housing. While we certainly need more affordable housing, I think to close the shelters is foolishness and will only bring more hardship on people who are waiting to find suitable housing that they can afford.

While Breakthrough gets some funding from the government we are not dependent upon government funds to stay open. When the city cut the funding for our men's shelter last year, we put out a plea to our private donors and kept our doors open. Not all shelter providers have that kind of diverse funding base. When others shut their doors it just makes our work more important and necessary. (By the way, the city later reinstated our shelter funding after facing severe criticism from homeless advocates.)

I believe the chronically homeless (those who are mentally ill and have been on the street for years) should be housed in some type of community setting. Giving them keys to their own apartments without adequate support will not ensure their success in independent living.

The work of Breakthrough and other homeless service providers is important because we build relationships with our homeless guests. I'm not saying other providers and government entities don't do that, but I think the depth of care that Breakthrough demonstrates is rare. Every person is different. We cannot assume that what is best for one person is best for another. So we allow our guests to choose their own goals and empower them to make good choices.

The ministries and organizations who have been operating shelters and day centers for years provide those caring relationships that make such a crucial difference in the lives of struggling people. A government dispensed rent subsidy will not have the same impact. Sadly, I am watching service providers close their doors because "providing the poor wanderer with shelter" as Isaiah sets forth in Isaiah 58 is no longer the politically correct thing to do.

The article mentions Daley's plan to require 10% set asides in new construction for those making $75,000 or less. I agree with the advocates who are asking the question, why not 15% for those making $60,000 or less. We need to stem the tide of the fast paced gentrification that is forcing residents out of their homes throughout the city by advocating for scattered site affordable housing that is really affordable.


thaberean said...

Arloa, thanks for your feedback on the article. The info you shared is very interesting. Hey, out of curiosity, I was wondering if there has been a study of the causes of homelessness (I'm sure there has been), and if legislators try to match the solution they fund w. those causes (I saw a h.s. student, actually, do a presentation on homelessness and I was surprised at how some of the causes (like mental illness and drug addiction and struggling single moms) were actually made worse by legislation (i.e., closing mental health facilities and drug rehab programs).
Any insights?

Arloa Sutter said...

Thanks for your comment Joyce. The causes of homelessness are, of course, pretty multiple and complex: Lack of affordable housing,low paying jobs, substance abuse and lack of needed services, mental illness and lack of needed services, domestic violence, unemployment, irresponsible life style, prison release and re-entry into society, cuts in public assistance, natural disaster and of course simply poverty. Here's a link to a US Conference of Mayors paper on the subject. Locally the Heartland Alliance puts out some pretty extensive research on poverty in Illinois.

I really believe the individuals and advocacy groups who are making policy decisions mean well and truly think they are doing the right thing, but in the end, I think you are right. Sometimes the very things the policy makers put in place to alleviate homelessness has the opposite effect.

I remember when we first started Breakthrough in 1992, I heard stories about the policies put in place in the 70s to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. Social advocates were claiming the mentally ill had rights to their own apartments so they began to direct funds to rent subsidies and away from facilities that cared for them. They were supposed to go to local mental health centers on schedule to pick up their meds, etc. Uptown became a literal dumping ground for van loads of former mental health care facility residents. Of course, they had difficulty following through with appointments and Uptown became and still is known for its mentally ill who wander about the streets and are now using our shelters.

It seems the policies we are putting in place now are similar to those of that era.

Those who profit most from the new plan are the developers and landlords. Money is directed away from the organizations whose mission is to provide personal care for people and toward developers who can buy up dilapidated buildings, renovate them enough to house poor people on a subsidy, until the community turns around and they can get "more desirable" folk to live there. In the end, the poor get shafted again.

I am all for cleaning up dilpidated buildings and providing rent subsidies for poor people. I just think we cannot neglect funding the programs and organizations that will provide the support services to help people with employment, recovery from addiction, life skill training, support for single moms, etc. It has to be both/and, not either/or, in my opinion.

JP Paulus said...

i haven't done research on it, so i certainly could use teaching on the answers to these questions:

Is there any "official" measure of how the plan is doing?

Who's held accountable if the plan fails?

Are there any missing elements to the plan (i.e. how do gentrifiers fit into the mix)?

Something else i wonder about is -- how does the 10 year plan factor in new cases of homelessness?

If we were to house everyone who is homeless now, how many new cases would we see in 10 years?