Cold, snowy weather is nothing new to Chicago, but for those living homeless, the weather adds another layer of difficulty to an already trying situation.
This week, the city conducted its annual count of the homeless population, a number that, thanks to the pandemic, is expected to be higher than the 2021 total of nearly 4,447 people.
Homelessness advocates say the data may not accurately reflect the true number of people who lack stable housing.
Jose Muñoz, executive director of La Casa Norte, says he’s seeing an overwhelming demand for housing in Chicago, in part because of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of people who go uncounted when it comes to homelessness. We have a lot of people who live in couples, who stay with their families, who live in their cars, who never go to a shelter,” he said. “Before the pandemic started, we estimated that there were around 58,000 people homeless because of this. And those who will be most affected will always be those who already faced poverty before the start of the pandemic. Especially the people who have been hit hardest during the pandemic… the African American and Latino communities.
Neli Vazquez Rowland, co-founder and president of A Safe Haven Foundation, says her experience matches Muñoz’s observation.
“We’ve been doing it now for 27 years and we’ve never seen it worse than it is today in terms of demand for our services,” Vazquez Rowland said.
Vazquez says that at A Safe Haven, eligible people in need can find help quickly.
“What makes us unique is the fact that people can actually walk through the door and be assessed in terms of their physique, their education, their employment issues, their housing issues, and they get a private accommodation to someone and we provide all of these comprehensive services in a coordinated and sequential manner.
Vazquez says that in his organization’s experience, community resistance to housing in their neighborhoods can be overcome through awareness raising.
“We are meeting with members of the city council to make sure there will be political will and support. And we invite people from the community when we’re considering moving into the community to come see what we’re doing and come and visit some of our facilities,” Vazquez Rowland said. “And I’m super proud to say that our buildings are absolutely beautiful. They’re an asset to the community…it’s just to educate people and help them understand that the people who were serving are probably even people who already live in those communities, but now they’re actually getting the right type of housing that is going to prevent them from becoming homeless or falling on hard times.
The young people La Casa Norte serves have been particularly hard hit by the fallout from the pandemic, says Muñoz.
“When the schools closed, the services closed… they had a lot of young people who relied on these services to have a safe place to shelter, to be able to put food in their bellies. And so that continues to be a problem at the moment, we see young people coming into our program who are looking for opportunities to find stable housing.
For people facing a housing crisis who need immediate help, Muñoz offers the following advice:
• Call 311. You can ask for short-term help, seek shelter, or even find your local warming centre.
• For those seeking rental assistance, please call La Casa Norte at 773-276-4900 ext. 233 to be informed of available emergency assistance programs.
• For youth needing help, use the StreetLight Chicago app, access the Youth Homelessness Handbook, or call La Casa Norte
• For general information and to access La Casa Norte’s support services, please call (773) 276-4900 Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. or email [email protected].
To alleviate the housing crisis in the future, Muñoz and Vazquez Rowland are seeking public support for HB 3949.
“This bill is really about elevating homeless providers and organizations to be part of critical infrastructure,” Vazquez Rowland said. “So as you see support coming to hospitals and nursing homes, we would like that kind of support to also come to homeless organizations, since we serve the most vulnerable populations in the city of Chicago.”