Helping area’s homeless no easy task
by JASON MEREL and CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
The Chicago Transit Authority said it understands concerns regarding homelessness at the Jefferson Park terminal and other areas, but some local housing organizers and outreach volunteers say there are not many resources on the Northwest Side that can provide help.
“CTA understands that homeless riders and those who gather at stations and other enclosures across the city can impact the customer experience and that this is a larger social issue, which extends well beyond our transit system,” the CTA said in a statement. The authority said that the pandemic and the winter season “have exacerbated this challenge” and that it partners with the city and social service agencies to address the issue.”
Several Jefferson Park housing organizers and outreach volunteers said the Northwest Side needs dedicated social service providers and more options for warming to adequately address homelessness in the area and that simply moving people experiencing homelessness is inhumane.
Alderman James Gardiner (45th) said that the ward office recently collected food and clothing for the homeless with Third Place Chicago.
“We understand the weather is a concerning topic and we do the best we can to aide the unhoused but we also understand the concerns of residents of the ward,” Gardiner said.
Additional warming shelters and public washrooms near the Jefferson Park Transit Center, 4917 N. Milwaukee Ave., would improve quality of life in the short term, according to Jefferson Park Forward president Maggie Daly Skogsbakken.
“Sometimes people don’t need the specific help someone is offering but instead need an ongoing supportive relationship or responsive mental health support,” Skogsbakken said.
“At the end of the day, people who are experiencing homelessness can’t carry around a lot of stuff. Being intentional with the things we gather and provide is important.”
One concern sent to the newspaper and other agencies including the CTA and the Chicago Police Department asks why there is no enforcement of posted signs prohibiting loitering. Several CTA riders at the terminal have indicated that they don’t use the warming shelters during the cold weather because they are usually occupied.
Another person suggested stricter enforcement of rules about loitering on CTA property and shutting off heat at the warming shelters which the agency and others have opposed due to being inhumane.
The lobby at the 16th (Jefferson Park) District police station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave., is available as a public warming center and the Jefferson Park Public Library, 5363 W. Lawrence Ave., has public washrooms available.
“Nothing is easy. Each person may be fighting their own demons and we try to get them to the right services they may need,” a police officer in the 16th District said.
The officer said complaints about the homeless are handled on a case-by-case basis and “simply kicking them out is not going to happen.” The officer said that the department acts when a person is aggressive or becomes a threat to the public. The 16th District also is looking to appoint an affinity officer as part of a citywide initiative. The officer is tasked with working with traditionally marginalized
groups, such as the homeless, according to police. The district also has a new community organizer, which is a civilian position. When asked about how officers deal with the homeless, the CPD Office of News Affairs provided a link to the department’s directives and policies.
The CPD has a “Homeless Bill of Rights” directive that is in line with the state Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act that says that no person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied “solely because he or she is homeless.”
“Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privilege as any other citizen of this state,” the directive states.
The directive also states that people experiencing homelessness have the right to use and move freely in public spaces “including but not limited to public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation, and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person and without discrimination on the basis of his or her homeless status.”
Anyone sleeping in a shelter, outside, in a vehicle or any place not meant for human habitation can call 3-1-1 to request transportation to a shelter, according to the City of Chicago’s Web site. However, those requests can take between 3 to 7 days to fill and requests for shelter significantly outpace the city’s ability to provide it, according to Chicago NWS Homeless Outreach volunteer Monica Dillon.
“Shelters citywide have less capacity due to the pandemic,” Dillon said. “There is no emergency shelter program (with support services) on the Northwest Side. If people are lucky enough, they may receive a bed at a shelter, after waiting for days, but the city receives approximately 150 calls each day for only five available beds.”
“A couple of homeless individuals have told me there are police officers who have helped them when they have been victims of crime,” Dillon said. “This really helps with relationship development and builds rapport. If something happens to them in the future, they’ll tell those same officers but developing that rapport takes time and trust.”
State Representative Lindsey LaPointe (D-19), who is partnered with the Jefferson Park Working Group on Homelessness, said she and a group of grassroots volunteers recently spoke to officials from the Department of Family and Support Services about dysfunctional elements of the system.
“Honestly, we were giving them the feedback of how this was playing out, they acknowledged that it was a problem and they would look into it,” LaPointe said. “Our shelter system and our human service system have to be responsive to what people need so it’s really important to take a moment, have conversations and assess what they need.”
LaPointe said the best way to do that is through street outreach.
The Chicago Coordinated Entry System is one of the first steps to accessing housing. The system uses a standardized housing assessment and there are a number of factors that affect prioritization within the system, including veteran status, age and length of time without housing. This system is meant to prioritize the needs of those without access to any form of suitable shelter.
Dillon said a part of outreach is motivational interviewing to guide people toward resources or set goals but ultimately the challenge is that it’s up to each individual to seek out those resources.
“They live here, and in many cases have family living in the community or were housed here prior to becoming homeless,” Dillon said. “These are good people. We should support them and the goals they define for themselves.”
Dillon said that since people started complaining, the residents living in the terminal have made an effort to keep the area cleaner.
One of the barriers to getting Northwest Side residents into housing programs is that the area lacks a dedicated social service provider.
LaPointe said the nearest shelter is Franciscan Outreach, 2715 W. Harrison St.
“On a local level, people need to realize there are not enough shelter beds available in the city so pushing people out of our area is just not humane or feasible,” LaPointe said.
Absent dedicated services, LaPointe said more temporary warming options are needed as temperatures drop.
Those are good stopgaps but the Northwest Side needs a permanent warming shelter, according to LaPointe. She said another option could be a mobile CTA warming bus at the Jefferson Park terminal.
“CTA works closely with the City’s Department of Family and Support Services and its Homeless Outreach Program, and their community partners – including Thresholds, Haymarket, Salvation Army and Featherfist – to provide residents experiencing homelessness with options for shelter and care,” the CTA said in the statement.
“Those entities perform outreach on a regular basis to identify passengers continuously riding and/or individuals who may need special services. In addition, as part of its pandemic initiatives, the city has focused more attention and resources on assisting those residents – including the homeless – with services to address their mental health needs,” the CTA said.