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Jen Thomas/MEDILL

Homeless advocates worry new CTA signs are targeting the homeless riders who use the trains as shelter on cold Chicago nights.

Chicago homeless hard hit by economic recession

by Jen Thomas
Dec 11, 2008

HOMELESS_really, this time

Homeless in Chicago: One woman's story

Bisi never expected to end up in a shelter. The mother of two, who wished to be identified by her first name only, has two degrees and until last year she had a secure job.

But in January 2007 Bisi left her position at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare to start her own interior decorating business and didn’t count on her nest egg diminishing so quickly.

“I had some money saved up for six months rent, but I didn’t put the proper planning into it. The bills kept piling up and there’s no way I could keep up,” said Bisi, 34, who was born in Chicago but moved back to the city from Nigeria in 1995.

She’s been at the Primo Center for Women and Children since September and she’s getting her life back on track. She’s working part-time and is in school, looking to earn her master’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Bisi plans to be able to move into her own permanent housing in January.

“The ball is in my court,” she said.

When her financial troubles began, Bisi initially stayed with an aunt and was looking for full-time work but had no luck landing a job.

“An additional challenge for people is that competition for jobs and workforce development is greatly increasing. The opportunities are diminishing as employers look for people with more experience,” said Christine Achre, the CEO of the Primo Center.

Once Bisi acknowledged she needed help, she took on a new attitude about her situation and landing at the Primo Center renewed her faith in herself.

“When you’re going through something like this, you don’t want everyone in your business. You worry about pride and dignity. But then I realized I was hiding behind nothing,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to let this stop me.’ I’m grateful for where I’m at.”

Bisi is a junior pastor at her church and hopes to use her experience to make her a better minister.

“After this, I want to use my psychology degree to help minister to people who are less privileged, to reach out and let them know that there is hope, that I know what they’re going through,” Bisi said. “I don’t want to be a doctor and make the big bucks. I just want to minister to people.”

After she leaves the shelter, Bisi will work to ensure she never becomes homeless again.

“When you go through something like this, it makes you appreciate what you had before,” Bisi said. “It makes you try harder in the future.”
This holiday season, everyone is looking for ways to tighten the belt, but for agencies and organizations in the city working to aid the homeless, there’s just no room to make cuts.

“We have been facing serious issues with homelessness before the economic downturn and the economy just magnified the issue,” said Christine Achre, the CEO of the Primo Center for Women and Children. “I think the economic crisis has exacerbated the problem.”

Local homeless service agencies and nonprofits are struggling to help more people with fewer resources.

“We’re feeling the effects on the supply side and the demand side,” said Gary Garland, the executive director of the Lakeview Food Pantry, one of the city’s busiest food pantries. “We’ve seen our numbers increase maybe 15 percent in the last year and 20 to 25 percent in the last few months compared to last year.”

The Lakeview Food Pantry doesn’t serve primarily homeless people but residents living in Lakeview who need the extra help.

“We’re seeing people who probably never expected to be at a food pantry,” Garland said. “We’re seeing more people within our service boundaries are in need. People in 2007 who needed us once or twice now need us seven, eight, nine times this year.”

Eithne McMenamin, a senior policy analyst at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s emergency shelter system was already exhausted last year, with shelters filled to about 95 percent capacity across the city on any given night last winter.
In uncertain economic times, people facing foreclosure or job layoffs may end up trying to get their share of already strained resources.

“My fear is that, like with everything, the economic crisis will touch us. I am reminded that the recession affects everything and there is no reason to think it won’t affect us,” said McMenamin, who added that she had heard anecdotally that there had been an increase in those using shelters as a result of foreclosures, though official numbers have yet to be reported.

The coalition works primarily as an advocacy and outreach organization, but even their efforts are hampered by financial limitations.

“Generally we’re fighting for increases [in funding for homeless programs and services] but right now we’re fighting against cuts,” McMenamin said.

A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Chicago has been in effect since 2003, but the city has failed to deliver on its promise to develop a system based on relocating the homeless to permanent housing and providing supportive services meant to get at the root causes of homelessness.

“The city’s goal is to close the shelters, but we see that they’re closing them prematurely,” McMenamin said. “They made this really big commitment and we supported it, but we also know it needs to be funded. The city just isn’t doing what it needs to do.”

Calls to the city’s department of housing and the department of human services were not returned.

According to the city’s most recent semiannual plan update, Chicago added 587 more units of permanent supportive housing, including 100 units for veterans and 200 units for the chronically homeless in 2007, and secured $4 million in funding for permanent housing for long-term homeless individuals and families.

It’s not enough, McMenamin said.

“On one hand, they’re saying they’re building all this affordable housing, but they’re not committed to preserving the affordable housing we have,” she said.

Achre said landing affordable, permanent housing is one of the biggest hindrances facing homeless families and some people are forced to continue cycling through the shelter system. With renters at risk because of foreclosures on landlords, more people are scared of ending up on the streets.

“First, maybe they’ll stay with family and then go to shelters. There might be a delay from when they have trouble to when they get into the system, but we do expect to see an increase in people with the foreclosure crisis and losing jobs and the economic problems,” McMenamin said.

When that happens, some worry there won’t be enough room for them.

“I believe in the next year or two, you’re going to see a flood of people needing help as a result of losing jobs, but we have to turn away three times as many people as we serve,” said Jennifer Nelson, the executive director of the Interfaith House, a 64-bed center for homeless people with special medical needs.

Donations and other forms of funding are stable for now, but many of the agencies are concerned about their financial security moving into the new year.

“Not only low-income people are suffering, but traditional donors are having to think about finances,” said Garland. “The people who are doing well are feeling the pinch, so people who are really struggling are panicking.”

Though fundraising and donations are slightly down for the year, both Achre and Nelson said they’re not concerned about the remainder of the year. What happens after the new year, though, is a mystery.

“We’re noticing that individual giving has been down, but we’re hoping to recoup that loss during the holidays,” Nelson said. “It’s coming in a little slower this year, but they’re saying next year it’s going to be tighter.”

The economic outlook might be dire, but advocates for the homeless know that their work depends as much on human compassion and hard work as it does on money.

“I feel good about 15 years of helping to rebuild the lives of the people who come through the door,” Nelson said. “The most precious thing is to volunteer and actually experience what it’s like to help people.”