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Sharma Shruti/MEDILL

Jose Vasquez offered a guided tour of the place he lived at for four years.

Many homeless fear living in shelters in Chicago

by shruti sharma
Dec 05, 2012


Sharma Shruti/MEDILL

Francisco, a homeless person, begs on the streets of Chicago.


Sharma Shruti/MEDILL

Data from the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness

Homeless Chicagoans face a number of challenges. Click on chart to see full-size image.

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More reasons on why homeless do not prefer to go to a homeless shelterFor more information on homeless stats visit the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness website Voices of the homelessMore on the plight of the homeless

Inconsistent mental health care hurts homeless, expert says

About one third of homeless people suffer from severe mental disorders, said Dr. Dan Beach, professor of psychology at Dominican University in River Forest. The most common of those disorders is schizophrenia, which leads to paranoid thinking, the suspiciousness of other people’s motives.

Beach said that mental illness may keep many homeless from going to shelters, and their symptoms also may prevent them from seeking help.

Beach said many see their conditions deteriorate because of the lack the continuous care and medication.

“It’s not a very coherent system and people are falling through the cracks,” Beach said.

Beach said that there was great promise in the early 1960s when there was a movement to improve community mental health, which led to creation of short-term facilities for the mentally ill. The idea was that people would be treated for a short-term period, be stabilized with medications and then be discharged into the community and treated on an outpatient basis.

Now the main problem has been to get people to come for those outpatient appointments with local community and health centers and to have agencies and governmental units follow up with the patients.

“It’s been a major failure of the system,” Beach said.

These patients move through a revolving door, Beach said. They get discharged, stop taking their medications, and when the symptoms start showing again, they wind up back in the hospital where they are treated again.

Beach said the answer is better outpatient follow up and better case management, but both are long term and expensive. Private insurance companies are not interested in doing this; the state is not interested in doing this.

“It requires more than the state of Illinois can provide. It’s extremely unfortunate,” Beach said.

Homeless people don’t vote; they don’t have lobbyists lobbying for them. So they are powerless voiceless people, he said.  
At 50 years of age, Jose Vasquez decided to brave the elements and take his chances on the streets of Chicago rather than continuing to live at Pacific Garden Mission – a homeless shelter in the South Loop.

After he lost his daily wage job, Vasquez moved to the shelter – a decision he soon came to regret. He said that the shelter with its many strict rules, lack of privacy and safety issues was not the safe haven he originally expected it to be.

So he decided to move out and made a spot on Lower Wacker Drive his home for the next four years. He found that one spot in the open was more personal and private compared with the interior of the shelter where one moment of privacy was impossible to achieve.

“They got about a thousand people. You don’t want to be in that mess. They had just one bathroom and you have to lineup to use the washroom. Two stalls. That’s it. So if you had bladder problem then you are in trouble. That was a terrible, terrible place,” Vasquez said.

A Pacific Garden Mission employee declined to talk about shelter conditions.

An estimated 14,055 people experience homelessness each night in Illinois with 84 percent living in shelters and transitional housing. Another 16 percent live unsheltered. Of the homeless 53 percent are single adults and 47 percent persons living in families, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness State of Homelessness report released in January 2011.

The city of Chicago has 3,200 interim and overnight beds for the homeless, according the Department of Family and Support Services. That’s a small number compared with the staggering 105,338 homeless Chicagoans, based on the July 2012 analysis by Coalition for the Homeless.

“We are just about at capacity in our shelters,” said Alisa Rodriguez, assistant director with the Department of Family and Support Services. The need is especially acute in winter, so the department provides cots to the shelters to expand their capacity, Rodriguez said.

Many homeless in Illinois have problems in addition to not having a place to live, according to the website of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. Thirty-two percent are severally mentally ill and 48 percent have chronic substance abuse issues. An estimated 4 percent are living with HIV/AIDS and 25 percent are victims of domestic violence.

About 15 percent of Illinois’ homeless are military veterans, the organization says.

Vasquez objected to the church service requirement in part because it meant getting up early to attend the 6 a.m. service. He also complained about the monotony of attending the same service every day without respite.

Francisco, who didn’t give his last name, also complained about the early hour of the religious service, adding that latecomers got no breakfast. Francisco, who is from the south suburbs, said he spends his nights on Metra trains when he fails to obtain a spot in the shelter.

The Department of Family Services says shelter rules are necessary to maintain discipline, but people like Vasquez and Francisco say it makes it hard to manage their life in general and day in particular.

For example curfew times can impede the ability to get work. Stacie, who would not share her last name, said that while some shelters have a 7 p.m. deadline, others have a deadline as early as 4 p.m.

“If you are working, how would you able to make the 4 p.m. deadline,” Stacie said.

Lack of personal space and privacy also discourage both men and women from going to shelters.

“You cannot function in an overcrowded shelter with different people and different attitudes. So, it was better to live out there,” Vasquez said of his decision to sleep on Lower Wacker.

Safety is a particular issue for women. Stacie was raped just outside the shelter she lived in for a week. The incident, which happened in August, left her shocked and disoriented. She said she now finds it hard to trust any shelter with her safety. That and the frequent robberies in the shelter has further strengthened her decision not to go back to a shelter again.

“I have been robbed multiple times. I am sick of waking up and all my stuff gone. I can’t afford to replace things. I am safer on the street than going out there. It’s kind of sad,” Stacie said.

Many nights Stacie would go to a spot under Lower Wacker Drive where she said other homeless live, too.

“They have blankets there and I know that nobody will steal my stuff there or do something bad to me,” Stacie said.

The Department of Family and Support Services said that it requires shelters to provide healthy and safe environments, but the lack of funding and resources puts a lot of pressure on the already overwhelmed staff at the shelters.

“The reality is there is limited funding to begin with,” Rodriguez said.

The apparent dearth of resources puts everyone safety and personal space at risk whether it’s the mentally ill or those who are not. And some of those who do not suffer with any mental illness confirmed that the presence of mentally ill people and those with substance abuse issues, keeps them from considering the option of going to a homeless shelter.

Bonita Franks, 61, lost her job in July. Now she begs, standing at the same corner at Madison and Canal to pay the rent for her apartment. She is scared that she might soon lose her apartment because she is already one month behind in her rent. Even losing her apartment wouldn’t make her go to homeless shelter, she said.

“There are a lot of mentally ill people who come there, also people with criminal records. It’s not a nice place to go. They put you out at five or six in the morning, so you are running around on the street. I did not want to subject my daughter and granddaughter to that,” Franks said.

People in shelters say that a shelter is like a prison without any bars, said Lien Choi, director of Hope House of Chicago.

“Most of the people in the shelter have some issue that they are dealing with, that put other people at risk,” Choi said.

“There could be intimidation inside and you won’t report it because you are scared,” Choi said.

Choi also pointed to the lack of cleanliness on the part of some of the homeless as another deterrent to some people considering shelters.

“Some people are so drunk that they do defecate and urinate on themselves, and though you can wipe the mattresses made of rubber, the cot is just canvas and stains on them are difficult to clean,” Choi said.

Choi said they do try in their shelter to make everyone take a shower, but they don’t have enough manpower to enforce the rule.

“There are more than few people who just don’t care about themselves,” Choi said.

But those who care about themselves and their lives find it hard to adjust to life at a shelter. The limited space and routine at the shelters does not leave any room for any independent activity.

“If you stay in the shelter for too long, you might become mentally ill. They treat you like a child when you are an adult,” said Hannah Willage, associate director of organizing for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“If you want to have little privacy, you cannot have it,” Choi said.

Despite bitter winter temperatures, some homeless won’t find a bed in a shelter in their neighborhood.

Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that a city survey several years ago of homeless who were turned away from shelters found that location made a difference.

“It really showed that there were a lot of people being turned away in some communities and empty beds in other communities,” Dworkin said. “There might not be a shelter in the place where they want it to be. And in the case of people getting turned away in one community, they often don’t want to travel all the way across town to an unfamiliar place … because they have a life that is centered in a certain place,” Dworkin said.