Chicago homeless ‘point in time’ count shows progress of pandemic, major changes to some shelter systems

CHICAGO (WLS) — Spot counts of homeless populations in Chicago and suburban counties were conducted this week. They provide a snapshot of how many people are homeless on any given night in the city and suburbs.

Many experts say that’s an undercount, that it doesn’t show the true big picture of homelessness. Still, it’s a vital step needed to allocate millions of dollars to programs and housing to help our most vulnerable populations.

Steve Lukowych and Erik Nelson are looking.

“Sometimes it can be a tricky situation because you never know who you’re going to meet or what their personality is,” Nelson said.

They said they’ve already found three homeless people on a cold, wet and dreary January night in Arlington Heights.

“My ultimate goal is to try to house them,” Nelson said.

It’s all part of the annual count of people without shelter in suburban Cook County.

“You have to let them know there is a way out,” Lukowych said.

People like Lukowych, who said she was without a stable home and living out of her car for two years after losing her job and getting divorced.

“I just couldn’t make ends meet. The next thing I knew, I was kicked out of the apartment I got because I couldn’t pay the rent,” she said.

Night after night, the fear, frustration and anxiety grew.

“It went downhill after that,” he said. “That hurts mentally. I mean it really hurts.”

He said he was physically and mentally distraught until they connected him with suburban housing advocates and the Northwest Compass team, who connected him with housing, food, medical care and more.

Now he is giving back, using his lived experience to try to help his friends who are still on the streets.

“There are a lot of resources here that will help you get all kinds of things you didn’t think were possible,” Lukowych said.

Some 30 miles away and a day later in Chicago, there was a similar effort to connect in the bitter cold with a community in need.

“These are real people. We don’t know all their stories, but I just met a young man who has been on the streets for two years. Sleeping on the concrete and shares a bed here with the pigeons,” Carolyn Ross said. , President and CEO of All Chicago.

The organization coordinates resources and responses for homeless people in the city.

“It’s heartbreaking, but we need to be here. We need to hear their stories. We need to hear their stories and hear what they need,” he said.

About 200 staff members and volunteers came together for the survey. Outreach teams toured the city to count and care for those in need.

According to the ABC 7 data team, Chicago’s point-in-time count from 2020 to 2022, the city’s homeless count, dropped 28%, from 5,390 to 3,875.

Statewide, that count dropped 12% from 10,431 to 9,212 homeless.

But there is also worrying news. While overall point-in-time counts indicate a drop, the percentage of homeless people without shelter, living outside, increased. In Chicago, the percentage of people without shelter counted from 2020 to 2022 increased from 28% to 33%. Statewide, the percentage stayed about the same, despite fewer people being counted, declining slightly from 22% to 21%.

“We got a lot of people off the streets and into shelters, but as you can see, we’re not reaching everyone yet,” Ross said.

“Before the pandemic, about 70% of our shelter relied on faith-based partners who rotated weeknights to offer overnight shelter,” said Katie Eighan, director of continuing care planning for suburban Cook County.

Eightan said the pandemic has disrupted the shelter system.

“When the pandemic hit, we lost that, and again, that was about 70 percent of how we provided emergency shelter,” he said.

Leeann Austin felt that firsthand.

“Mentally, you’re lucky if you’re still a normal person at the end of the night because it mentally falls apart as a person,” Austin said.

He said that when he was homeless during the pandemic, finding shelter was nearly impossible.

“I would go from hospital to hospital, from shelter to shelter, or there were no shelters and the best thing you could do was go to a hotel lobby,” he said.

But since the pandemic began, tens of millions of federal, state and local dollars have been invested in the city and suburbs to support new initiatives to add more shelter space, amenities and non-congregate private rooms. That money comes from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, helping Leeann get back on her feet.

“I am grateful, I am happy and I hope that we can help others on the streets as well instead of outside,” she said.

Either at a big box store in Elk Grove Village leaving supplies.

“We look for cars that seem a little isolated, especially if there are fogged up windows,” said Jennifer Rivera, Northwest Compass program specialist.

Or at a gas station in Bensenville doing the same thing, trying to make contact.

“They allow people to stay overnight in their parking lots and allow them to use the facilities,” said Lisa Snipes, Continuum Planner, DuPage County Continuum of Care.

Advocates from across the city, state and country are working this week to end the stigma and suffering of homelessness.

“No one wants to be outside, homeless, cold and alone, doing nothing with their lives, we want to be successful. We want to be successful. But it only takes that person, that organization to notice it,” Austin said.

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