[Hpn] CHICAGO, IL - Fighting homelessness: Chicago's plan - Christian Science Monitor - December 01, 2003

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Sun, 30 Nov 2003 19:54:55 -0500


Fighting homelessness: Chicago's plan

Other cities adopt model of stressing housing
over shelters.
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Amanda Paulson - Christian Science Monitor - December 01, 2003

CHICAGO – 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 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 that 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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