City makes way for the homeless

By Vanessa Morton

New measures are in the works as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and various agencies and organizations come together in an extensive effort to curb homelessness.

Emanuel joined the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness on Dec. 2 to announce “Plan 2.0,” an initiative to “recalibrate” former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to end homelessness in the city.

“Chicago’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has made great strides in creating homelessness infrastructure that serves to help our most vulnerable residents regain self-sufficiency and stability,” Emanuel said in a written statement. “But there is still much work to do. Plan 2.0 will build on current achievements while addressing the evolving needs of our homeless residents to provide a more effective strategy for combating homelessness.”

According to John Pfeiffer, first deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, the initiative will reflect findings from the past nine years, develop different kind of program models, such as permanent and interim housing, increase employment resources and create a more effective homeless system, which will help with prevention strategies.

“The original plan was written in 2002 and was endorsed by Daley in 2003, so the plan has not changed,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s a road map with some big strategies. The most important strategies are in the areas that we’ve seen real progress.”

While Plan 2.0 won’t be unveiled until spring 2012, it will be drafted and led by a steering committee of 14 leading stakeholders, which include the City of Chicago, the Chicago Planning Council on Homelessness and the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. The plan will be based on evaluation studies conducted over two years by Loyola University Chicago and the University of Chicago, according to Nancy Radner, chief transition officer of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.

She said the universities followed 550 homeless households and interviewed them three times to see what happened.

“You end homelessness by finding people homes, so we revamped our homelessness system from one that was primarily sheltered to one that was very focused on permanent supportive housing, and we did that in a couple of ways,” Radner said.

She said in order to increase the number of permanent supportive housing facilities—which are a type of affordable housing that includes wrapped services, such as mental health, child education and employment resources—the agency changed the city’s shelter system by adding a new model called “interim housing.”

“The [city] is one of the only places in the country that has this model,” Radner said. “Rather than being sheltered, the whole idea of interim housing is still to be a place for people to go, but its main focus is to get clients [into] permanent housing in 120 days if possible or less.”

According to Pfeiffer, in 2002 Chicago’s homeless housing was composed of roughly 62 percent shelters and 38 percent permanent supportive housing. However, the current figures are approximately 60 percent permanent supportive housing and 40 percent shelters.

“Our dream is to move in a direction where we have the vast majority of what we’re funding is [permanent supportive] housing, because we think that’s more stabilizing and a better environment for individuals to move into immediately if they become homeless,” Pfeiffer said. “And we’ve gone from [approximately] 3,500 to 7,000 or more and have a pipeline of new units in development. So we’re adding to that, and I know of [approximately] 550 units that are in the works.”

While part two of the initiative is in the process of being developed, issues still arise as a count shows that homelessness in the city has increased during the past year.

According to Anne Sheahan, director of Public Affairs for Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, the agency conducts what it calls a “point and time” count every two years in January when it deploys a team of members to canvass homeless people in and out of the city’s shelters.

“During the last count we took, which was during 2011, we recorded 6,537 individuals who were both living in shelters and on the streets,” Sheahan said. “And in 2009,there were [approximately] 6,240 individuals.”

However, Sheahan said the agency has expanded its team, making the most recent count a bit more comprehensive, which she said could have contributed to the rise in

homelessness shown.

The increase in the number of homeless people is not the problem agencies are most focused on. Rather, the issue seemed to come from the city’s current economic status. The city’s budget for homelessness issues is an estimated $42.8 million, which is a combination of city, state and federal dollars. However, according to Pfeiffer, Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services has seen a loss of $15 million because of budget cuts.

“We’re working on trying to figure out what the exact need is and what we can produce with the funding constraints that we’re operating with because every level of government is feeling the pinch and so is private philanthropy,” he said.

Plan 2.0 will undergo its last two phases before it is presented in 2012. At the end of January, the steering committee will hold what it calls “Charrette Week,” which will consist of intense community meetings that will allow for public feedback.

“We want to look at what is working … address any unmet needs as best we can … take a look at the data and at the last nine years of experience, especially this evaluation, and make well-informed decisions about what we can do next,” Pfeiffer said. “Then we [want] to make the best beneficial use of the dollars we have, allowing us to make the greatest impact. So, it’s a moment to take stock and to use good information make good decisions.”