Earlier this week, we took note of how Illinois -- and Chicago in particular -- continues to fall behind in developing affordable housing stock to keep the state's poorest families of the streets. Equally troubling, we found, is the fact that the Daley administration has ...
Earlier this week, we took note of how Illinois -- and Chicago in particular -- continues to fall behind in developing affordable housing stock to keep the state's poorest families of the streets. Equally troubling, we found, is the fact that the Daley administration has been rapidly closing down shelters just as more families are being pushed into homelessness.
New research from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) only reaffirms these concerns. Families -- specifically, single mothers with young children -- are now the fastest growing segment of the nation's homeless population. More from the agency's annual report to Congress:
During the two-year period, the number of sheltered persons in families increased by 9 percent, and families now represent nearly one-third of the entire sheltered population, up from 29 percent in 2007. This shift has occurred simultaneously with another important shift: between 2007 and 2008, the share of the overall sheltered homeless population living in suburban and rural areas increased from 23 percent to 32 percent.
The changing face of homelessness doesn't come as much of a surprise to local anti-poverty experts. During the last six months of 2008, Chicago Public Schools homeless student population jumped by nearly a quarter, compared to the prior year. In May, WTTW aired a heartbreaking report on one such student. The Tribune also took note of the trend back in February:
The number of homeless students has risen dramatically in the last year. From July 1 to Dec. 31, the district counted 9,698. That’s 23.5 percent more than the 7,851 for the same period in 2007. By the end of the school year, the district is expecting to top last year’s record of 10,642 students, said Patricia Rivera, director of the district’s homeless education program.
According to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), the school district actually exceeded that winter estimate, reaching 12,512 as of May 31. Curiously, however, Illinois' homeless population -- 41 percent of which lives in Chicago -- fell by nearly 5 percent last year according to the HUD report, ranking 38th in the nation per capita. Could this be attributed to the success of Chicago's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, which is still being studied? Or is it an effort to sweep the problem under the rug?
We ran the figures past CCH policy director Julie Dworkin and here's her take:
The overall state number seems oddly low when compared to many other less populous states. I think that many have been trying to make the case (including the [City of] Chicago) that the numbers have been stabilizing due to 10-year plan's etc, but I think that argument is ludicrous now in the face of what is happening with the economy. No one is untouched by this and certainly not the most vulnerable. Since the most recent numbers in the report are from January of 2008, I think they are basically irrelevant now given what has happened in the 18 months since that time.
Indeed, HUD acknowledges that the reporting period concluded "just as the [economic] crisis was accelerating," so the current picture is certainly much more grim. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said they were couch surfing before entering a shelter, which "may be early signs of the impact of the economic downturn on homelessness."
The traffic at shelters across Illinois has only increased since then. By the Southern Illinois Coalition for Homeless' count, 850 people entered the shelter system last year, 600 of whom went to the Family Crisis Center. As in Chicago, the agency's director Peggy Russell tells downstate KFVS that the shelters' biggest struggle is finding affordable housing for their clients, noting: "Because we have clients that are staying longer we're having to turn clients away." The problem is only compounded by the fact that shelters are among the social service agencies currently cutting back services due to the budget impasse in Springfield.
There is a solution, however. In highlighting the effectiveness of safety net programs, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this week that housing subsidies are the single most effective form of assistance in pulling people out of poverty:
In 2005, about 10 million Americans in more than 4 million low-income households received housing assistance, well below the number that received food stamps, SSI, EITC, or any of the universal programs we examined. Yet, as a share of those assisted, housing assistance reduced poverty more effectively than any other program: 44 percent of those who received housing assistance would be considered poor without it but were above the poverty line when their housing benefit was counted.
Making this sort of investment is not only going to take some creative thinking, but political will. And a push on that front is apparently brewing. Stay tuned.