[Hpn] City tracks hidden homeless

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Sat, 29 Jan 2005 05:00:45 -0800 (PST)


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City tracks hidden homeless 
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Head count will help Chicago vie for millions in federal funds

By Patrick Rucker
Tribune staff reporter

January 29, 2005

The woman peeked out from a cardboard parapet as Jim Bracey strode toward her makeshift home among the litter and scattering rats under the Dan Ryan Expressway.

"This is Betty's house," Bracey said.

Bracey, a Salvation Army chaplain, has visited the spot a hundred times before. This time he brought along a clipboard.

For three hours in the bitter cold Thursday night, Bracey and some 400 census takers from the city of Chicago and 11 non-profit agencies roamed dark urban corners to find the most elusive homeless.

The head count was replicated in dozens of cities in the nation this week to help the Department of Housing and Urban Development decide how it will allocate $1.4 billion in federal aid.

HUD has never before sought such a standardized count of the nation's homeless, said department spokesman Brian Sullivan. "It is a way for us to get uniformity in the data," Sullivan said.

Chicago received about $40 million in HUD funding for homelessness last year--over half of the state's allotment of $73 million. City officials estimate there are 9,600 homeless people in Chicago; activists for the homeless estimate the population at about 15,000 in a city with only 6,000 beds at shelters.

Now that the census is done, researchers from the city Department of Human Services and Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs will process the raw data into hard numbers.

That process is likely to take several weeks, human services officials said. Chicago's numbers will be added to those of Miami, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and dozens of other municipalities that conducted a "point in time" snapshot of their homeless problem.

"Because of the way we collected the data--using a sampling method--it will be several weeks before we have any conclusions," said Cindy Collins, director of grants and research for the Human Services Department. She helped develop the census questionnaire and sampling methodology and will help with the analysis.

Bracey led a band of about eight volunteers who found 12 homeless people, mostly men, while searching on foot under bridges and highway overpasses and in abandoned buildings around the city's University Village and Pilsen neighborhoods.

Betty Strickland's cardboard lean-to was their first stop. They found her there, along with her companion, Willie, sitting next to a small fire.

A cheerful woman of 43, Strickland emerged wearing six sweaters and an overcoat.

"I'm just trying to stay warm," Strickland said with a half-smile, her nook packed with six blankets.

On CTA trains and buses, in emergency rooms, late-night laundries and restaurants, the volunteer canvassers were on the lookout for people like Strickland--the unseen homeless who routinely eschew shelters and live rough on the street no matter what their health is, no matter what the weather.

According to HUD guidelines, the homeless count was conducted in the final week of January--when weather is bitter and shelters are near capacity.

When the Chicago volunteers came upon a willing subject, they interviewed the homeless person according to an 18-point questionnaire on lifestyle, health and personal history.

Homeless people who were found sleeping or who declined to cooperate also were noted in the tally.

Besides helping city officials compete for HUD funding, the census information is expected to yield clues to help realize Mayor Richard Daley's campaign to end homelessness in 10 years--an initiative that started in 2003.

"Once we get the data analyzed, it will inform our work immediately," said Ellen Sahli, Daley's liaison on homelessness and supportive housing. "The HUD application is only part of its usefulness."

Bracey, once homeless himself, looked for telltale signs that a homeless person was living nearby, such as errant grocery carts, stray bicycles, piles of debris and unexplained smoke rising from unlikely spaces.

"I've seen people in corners and crevices that you'd never expect someone could sleep," Bracey said.

He has found people under train trestles and overturned canoes, in trash bins and freight cars.

On nights like Thursday, when the temperature dropped to 14 degrees, many indigent people go to city warming centers or other indoor sites.

Those who remain on the streets are some of the least likely to seek public aid, Bracey said. They may be dealing with mental illness, fear, dedication to a companion, drug dependency or pride.

Knowing how many people are unwilling to seek help is crucial to eliminating homelessness, Sahli said.

"That information is important for designing new programs," she said. "Why aren't people using shelters? What is the need there that we are not responding to?"

In the conventional view, shelters are the gateway to getting homeless people access to other services.

"Our long-term goal is to get these people into permanent housing, but we believe part of doing that means finding them where they are," Sahli said.

According to the HUD guidelines, volunteers counted people living in conditions considered "unfit for human habitation."

That description is apt for the home Betty Strickland and her companion have made for themselves, Bracey said.

"I've seen people in these situations before. Often it takes a tragedy--like one of them dying--before people like that come in. I hope it does not come to that."


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