Fighting homelessness: Chicago's plan

Other cities adopt model of stressing housing over shelters.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Janice keeps a keychain on her - though it's not much good these days. "As soon as I get that front-door key, it'll go on it," she says, jingling the chain at a long wooden table in the St. Francis de Paula Hospitality House, a shelter for families.

Janice and her son never expected they'd be homeless. She had her own house when she was married. She's worked - usually in an office - since she was 16. But when she lost a job after 9/11, work became spotty. She couldn't pay rent, started bouncing between friends' houses, and three months ago, she came to the shelter. "I'm not so worried about me," she says. "But I have another life I'm responsible for."

Janice's story is a common one: Most families gathered here on a recent morning speak of lost jobs and lives that spiraled out of control. With unemployment rising

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and real estate prices still booming, homelessness in Chicago, as elsewhere, has grown in the past year - particularly among families and working people.

It's a disturbing situation, but one Chicago thinks it can solve. In a move being closely watched around the country, the city is undertaking an ambitious experiment: a 10-year "plan to end homelessness," a drastic shift in strategy that emphasizes permanent housing over shelters. The effort targets the "chronic" homeless - those on the streets repeatedly and for long periods - and aims to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. In the war on homelessness, it's a 180-degree tactical shift.

"What we've learned is that many of the families ... that come into shelters aren't that different from other poor families," says Dennis Culhane, a professor of social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "By continuing to expand the shelter system, we've ... reduced the political pressure to help people address their housing problems."

The Bush administration has tried to change that by asking cities and counties to work on ending chronic homelessness within 10 years. Chicago's plan - developed by advocates, service providers, and city government - was adopted by the mayor nearly a year ago. Nine other cities - including Atlanta and Indianapolis - have adopted similar strategies. This month, New York and Los Angeles announced they'll develop their own 10-year plans.

An era conducive to change

Most advocates insist that ending homelessness - or at least ending the chronic homelessness that leaves some on the streets for months and years - is an attainable goal. It remains to be seen how much mayors and governors will back their words with money - especially given strapped budgets - but reallocating resources could do a lot. And advocates and homelessness experts are encouraged by what they say is a very significant shift in strategies.

"This is the best policy environment I've experienced in 16 years of work in the field," says Jean Butzen, director of Lakefront Supportive Housing, a Chicago nonprofit that manages some 1,000 units of permanent housing for formerly homeless people. "And yet it's the worst economic time I've experienced. The trick is how to maintain this - to be ready when the country is ready to allocate new resources."

For many of the chronically homeless, self-sufficiency may not be realistic. That subgroup is about 10 percent of the homeless population, experts estimate, but often accounts for half of all shelter days. As a result, most money spent on homelessness goes to the chronically homeless, with little long-term success.

Building more shelters simply makes it easier to stay on the streets, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Even longer-term housing, which often requires sobriety, may do little. "If you're mentally ill and self-medicating, to say you can move into this place but you can't drink from the first day, probably isn't going to be effective," she says.

Instead, Chicago and other cities are trying to increase "housing-first" options: permanent housing like Ms. Butzen's Lakefront that gives people a place to live, then helps them address other life challenges.

Already, several Chicago shelters are moving toward permanent housing. By next year, the city will only give grants to such programs, says Ngoan Le, special assistant to the mayor on homelessness. Chicago is also trying to work with institutions, like prisons and the child-welfare system, that tend to release people onto the streets with little support.

Prevention and funding

And then there's prevention - helping people caught in the spiral of a lost job or mounting debts keep the homes they have.

In Illinois, the Homeless Prevention Fund gives families small sums - $300 to $500 - when they have no way to pay, say, that month's rent or a doctor's bill. Last year, the state found that 81 percent of the families who 'd received the help were still in housing, says Ed Shurna, acting director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "It's proved its point that it works."

Mr. Shurna is optimistic about this plan, though he wonders whether the money is there to make it work. The group that administers the Homelessness Prevention Fund still needs $1.5 million, and moving a system from emergency shelter to permanent housing won't be easy. Right now, says Shurna, "they're just making a scratch on that surface."

If Chicago, or any city, wants to end homelessness, advocates say, it will have to pay attention to the big-picture forces that keep affordable housing scarce and allow a woman like Janice to find herself on the streets with an eight-year-old son to support.

"We've learned a lot," says Laudan Aron, a research associate at the Urban Institute. The 10-year plans are an important start, she says. "But this is a problem that's the very tail end of poverty. All the systems that you regularly see reports on - the mental-health system broken, or employment and training programs limited - this is the end result. Until those systems get their acts together, we're going to have homelessness."

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