Without stable housing for five years, David, seen here at a tent encampment on the Northwest Side earlier this year, says Chicago needs to do more to help people like him. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)
Without stable housing for five years, David, seen here at a tent encampment on the Northwest Side earlier this year, says Chicago needs to do more to help people like him. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

David has little faith in people. 

Calling himself a “nomad,” David, 35, has been without housing for five years and witnessed how people like him are treated on the streets — their tents burned, slashed or thrown away.

So David, who asked that his last name not be used, usually has stayed on the move, fearing his tent and belongings could be next. Only recently has he stayed longer in an encampment in Avondale on the Northwest Side when he made a friend. 

Still, it wasn’t long before the city came through, with workers slapping green signs on tents and nearby concrete pillars, warning of an upcoming “cleaning” that could see David’s belongings, along with those of his friends and about five others, tossed in the garbage.

“This is kind of like my dwelling, I live here … it’s pretty much my house,” David said. “So, I don’t know if they can say, ‘You got to get the f— out of here.’ Like, at least help us with housing or something.”

A sign posted on a pillar informs the people living in an encampment that the area will be cleaned, causing them to wory that they will lose their possessions and tents. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)
A sign posted on a pillar informs the people living in an encampment under the Kennedy Expressway at California that the area will soon be cleaned, making them fear they will lose their possessions. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

The city has budgeted more than $200 million this year to provide services for people like David who are experiencing homelessness, with much of that money coming from federal pandemic relief aid. 

But what the city’s homelessness support system has actually spent so far tells a different story. 

Though the city continues to expel people experiencing homelessness from its airports, underpasses and L cars, it has spent at most only 15% out of one of the largest pots of federal money it was given for programs to help people experiencing homelessness get into housing faster, according to the city.

The clock is ticking for the city. 

Municipalities that received pandemic recovery funds must create a plan to use them by the end of 2024 and spend the funds for that plan by the end of 2026, according to the Chicago Recovery Plan. Other federal dollars the city received have a deadline of 2030.  The city’s recovery plan devotes $117 million to a range of homelessness support services.

The slow dispersal of federal money has stalled the launch of some new homelessness programs and pinched the budgets of some nonprofits looking for quicker payments.

Some organizations say the city’s approach to counting people experiencing homelessness, which involves going out on one of the coldest nights of the year to count people, underestimates the size of the problem. The city doesn’t take into account people who live “doubled up,” which could include couch surfing with friends or family or other situations.

By any measure, the problem is only growing worse. The city has seen its homeless population nearly double between its 2022 “Point-in-Time” count and its 2023 snapshot of residents experiencing homelessness on a single night, jumping from 3,875 to 6,139. 

That’s the highest number of unhoused people logged in a city survey since 2015.  

For 2023, the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) says in its estimate, 5,149 people live in shelters and another 990 are “on the street or other locations not meant for human habitation.” That same organization manages over 3,000 shelter beds at 50 facilities, according to the city.

Though the “Point-in-Time” count is a snapshot for a single night, organizations and city officials say the number is higher, potentially around 65,000 in 2020.

The figure doesn’t include Chicago Public School students facing homelessness — the district has 16,059 currently enrolled students living in temporary situations. There are another 1,641 youths connected to the school district —  like those who have dropped out, who are missing or have recently graduated — who are in temporary living situations, a CPS spokesman said.

As for David, he said he’s been on a waiting list for housing for more than a year. During the day he looks for day labor jobs or panhandles. People sometimes bring food by the area he lives in, and the Night Ministry comes by with medical and other supplies. Some use the Night Ministry’s address to get mail since they have no permanent address.

David stop by the Night Ministry van as it makes its stop the encampment of homeless people at the California underpass at the Kennedy earlier this month. (Victor Hilitski for Illinois Answers Program)
David comes by the Night Ministry van as it makes its stop at the encampment of homeless people at the underpass on the Northwest Side earlier this year. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

It’s tough to meet the qualifications for housing when you don’t have a stable home to begin with, he noted. 

“OK, look. I don’t have an ID right now, but I am in the [system],” David said. “They obviously know who I am … but they are saying if you don’t have an ID on that day then you can’t get help.”

It’s common for unhoused people to lose their ID or other personal documents as they move from place to place though they can also be stolen or thrown out, creating a barrier to long-term housing. The city says it tries to get those people state IDs.

“Everybody is like, ‘Oh, get a job,’” David said. “You have to have a little something to get started. If you have nothing, no one, no backbone, no support, nothing — it’s a bitch.”

During the pandemic the city started programs with its windfall of federal funds to help people find housing faster: the Expedited Housing Initiative. It expanded a year later to become the Rapid Rehousing program. While housing organizations initially lauded both moves, some now question two years later whether the city is moving fast enough.

Finding a stable home in Chicago can still take about 800 days, said one official from All Chicago, the agency that manages the city’s efforts on homelessness. That nonprofit pays service providers and manages the city’s Rapid Rehousing program, homeless information system and a referral system to help connect people to housing.

In total, the city has budgeted about $52 million in American Rescue Plan Act-related funds for programs to support people experiencing homelessness, but as of the city’s most recent federal report they’ve spent nearly 15% from that pot of federal money, records show.

As a result of the city’s spending, an Illinois Answers Project investigation found that some of its initiatives are off to slow starts or haven’t begun.

  • The city’s Rapid Rehousing Program has the largest budget with more than $27.3 million designated for quickly getting Chicagoans into housing. The city has spent $7.4 million — a little more than 27% of the money for a program expected to run 2 ½ years, according to the city’s second quarter report just released to the feds.  
  • The $12 million Stabilization Housing pilot program was created to help people with complex mental health or substance abuse problems who cycle through jails, emergency rooms and the city’s shelter system. The city has not released any funding for this program yet. City Council members recently voted to approve a $2.9 million purchase of a motel that will be part of the program.
  • The $8.2 million Re-entry Workforce Development Program looks to help those facing employment barriers, focusing on people returning from incarceration, people with limited English skills and those experiencing homelessness. City officials initially told the feds they’ve  spent $543,315 — or about 7% of the money. But in response to questions from Illinois Answers they said that number was in error and put that spending figure at $157,626  — or about 2% — as of Aug. 1.
  • The Rapid Rehousing Services of Gender-Based Violence Survivors, which includes domestic violence survivors, aims to find homes for those people. The program was budgeted to cost more than $4.6 million over 2 ½ years, but it had spent $396,377, according to the city’s most recent federal report. Officials said that figure reflects spending through the end of the second quarter, but as of Aug. 1 the city says it has spent a bit more — $440,691.

The city also created a nearly $5 million program to help formerly incarcerated people at risk of homelessness or returning to the criminal justice system, and another, $500,000 shelter initiative, the second quarter report shows.

When asked about the city’s spending pace, the Department of Family and Support Services said it had to hire new staff to develop and oversee several programs as well as choose a delegate agency to provide direct services. 

“DFSS has worked consistently and diligently to launch these homeless services-related programs,” DFSS Commissioner Brandie Knazze said. “These activities were the focus for the majority of 2022. In addition, these are long-term programs that provide monthly housing support to individuals for one to two years. DFSS expects to expend funding for these programs gradually and consistently throughout the two years.”

The mayor’s office declined to make Mayor Brandon Johnson available for an interview with Illinois Answers or answer specific questions about the pace of the spending but instead offered a general statement.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, seen here at his augural address earlier this month, campaigned on combating homelessness and bringing more affordable housing to Chicago. (Credit: Getty file photo)
Mayor Brandon Johnson, seen here at his augural address earlier this month, campaigned on combating homelessness and bringing more affordable housing to Chicago. (Credit: Getty file photo)

“Overall, we have a comprehensive strategy to house all Chicagoans from those who are unhoused to those who are looking to buy homes, and look forward to working with business, community partners and all stakeholders to address our city’s housing crisis,” a spokesperson for Johnson said.

Nicole Bahena, vice president of community partnerships for All Chicago, said the pace of money going out the door could be partly attributed to Chicago “being flooded with more cash” after already receiving millions of dollars in other pandemic aid. City officials also met with partner agencies on how to spend the money, which slowed down the release of money. 

Also, the homelessness support system in Chicago is facing a severe staffing shortage that has triggered some agencies to pull out of city programs, specifically the one for gender-based violence survivors, Bahena said.

All Chicago was chosen to coordinate the Rapid Rehousing programs that received federal funds. Bahena said the group has spent $9.5 million of its roughly $27 million budget for the general Rapid Rehousing program. The nonprofit has been reimbursed for some of its spending on the program and is waiting to be reimbursed for some of its other expenses.

Chicago officials noted that the city’s housing department has released almost all of another big pot of federal funding, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act for its Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 

Organizations see positive changes, but there’s room for improvement 

Organizations who offer front-line services told Illinois Answers they’ve seen improvements in the city’s homelessness response as COVID-era funding, including dollars from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, offered a lifeline to people. But helping them can often be hobbled by bureaucracy. 

“The CARES Act dollars have been wonderful, but I’m not sure why it took a pandemic for us to take homelessness seriously,” said Margarita Nieves-Gonzalez, director of programs for A Safe Haven. “It’s not permanent but it helped to provide additional services.”

That meant a greater ability to help people pay their rents, find transitional housing or shelter placements but not an ability to maintain those services, Nieves-Gonzalez said.

The nonprofit, which focuses on people experiencing homelessness, is facing a $1 million deficit.

When Nieves-Gonzalez spoke to reporters from Illinois Answers in May, A Safe Haven’s 1,300 beds for its homelessness, recovery and supportive housing programs were full, and she was short 40 staff members.

Previous grant programs offered a minimum wage for staff; however, they haven’t kept up with cost of living increases, Nieves-Gonzlaez said. Her organization has had to provide those increases from its own pockets to meet the demands of employees. 

She expects more money for nonprofits under the new mayor but if nothing changes, Nieves-Gonzalez said she expects to see more programs close.

“We’re not going to be able to survive.” 

Historically, the city’s attention on helping people experiencing homelessness has been left to who is sitting on the fifth floor. 

Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said helping people who are unhoused has been a fairly “low priority” for mayoral administrations and there has “never been a lot of investment to address the problem, particularly to identify funding sources.”

The approach has varied from mayor to mayor with Lori Lightfoot dedicating more money than her predecessors Rahm Emanuel or Richard M. Daley, thanks to a substantial boost from pandemic aid. 

Both the Daley and Emanuel administrations tried to address homelessness, crafting their own plans. 

Daley unveiled a plan in 2003 designed to end homelessness in Chicago by 2013, an effort that entailed closing shelters and using that money instead to support moving unhoused people into apartments and other more permanent housing, but the city couldn’t meet demand. 

Still, it moved forward with its plan and drastically reduced the number of shelter beds.

In 2002, there were nearly 6,000 city-sponsored shelter beds and by 2007 the number of shelter beds shrunk to just over 3,500. The goal was to have about 300 beds by 2012. 

There are about 3,000 shelter beds in Chicago today. 

Emanuel tried to build on the program with his Plan 2.0 which focused more on the city’s response system and providing more support for youth experiencing homelessness. 

Lightfoot’s efforts would seem more ambitious, thanks to unprecedented funding from the feds during the pandemic, but the same problems persist. 

“We continue to be very concerned about the number of people who are living on the street,” Dworkin said. “The numbers are growing, and I think that’s in part due to a lack of shelter beds. The way to address this is permanent affordable housing.” 

It wasn’t until COVID that organizations really saw enough funding to provide ambitious enough programs that could substantially help people get housed. 

The Expedited Housing Initiative and others were “a godsend” to help people find more permanent housing, said Hebron Morris Jr., contracts compliance specialist at Olive Branch Mission. 

But at times the city funding did not arrive quickly enough to meet the agency’s needs. 

Morris said he and others had a “great expectation of money coming from the city to help with the homelessness population, but it hasn’t been sent out in the way that we thought.” Olive Branch Mission, based on the South Side, offers five shelter programs. 

“We would have loved to have seen them disperse that money earlier last year or in the last six months — it would’ve helped tremendously,” Morris said. “Would’ve been nice to see that money — if not for operational things, it could’ve helped in a lot of other areas, renovations, expansion, providing better facilities and dealing with sustained maintenance to keep facilities going and viable for clients.” 

City programs often end too soon for people still getting back on their feet, advocates say.

Kathy Booton Wilson, CEO of the women’s shelter Deborah’s Place, said the timeline for the Rapid Rehousing program is “really quick.” The city says it supports recipient households for on average 11 months, and up to 24 months.

“Homelessness is such a traumatic experience,” Booton Wilson said. “For women experiencing the trauma of being on the streets, but also traumas that happen once they’re on the streets, there’s a period where they just need to decompress.”

For some that can be a few months – for others, they need a whole year, she said. 

Graffiti near a Chicago encampment of people experiencing homelessness reminds passersby of how close many are to falling into the same circumstances. (Credt: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

She added that case managers have been good about trying to juggle a client’s need to decompress while helping them meet the requirements of the housing initiative, apply for the city’s few emergency housing vouchers or seek permanent supportive housing. 

In other cases, Deborah’s Place uses its own funds to help its clients. While the organization has been kept afloat by its cash reserves and COVID-era dollars it received, “going forward, the sustainability of being able to do that is a concern.”

There are also lengthy wait times to be paired with housing — and once referred for a unit people experiencing homelessness still may not be able to occupy it for at least another two months.

Bahena said the timeline between a person first entering the city’s system to being housed is about 800 days, meaning people have been on wait lists for years. 

All Chicago manages the city’s homelessness work, making them the “backbone, or lead agency,” Bahena said.

The agency was chosen as the coordinator for the Rapid Rehousing programs created with the ARPA dollars, meaning they receive funding from the city and contract out the work to run the program. That process has faced staffing challenges creating a “capacity issue” for doing the work, Bahena said.

The organization applies for other federal funds, evaluates projects and depends on a network of service providers to help get people housed.

Once a person is referred for housing they may still face a wait time of 64 days on average for placement. Two years ago the average figure was 83 days, according to All Chicago data.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leading voice on homelessness policies, has said its goal is 30 days from referral to housing. 

The city’s longer wait time can be partly due to unhoused people being transient or not having a phone. It also takes time to find landlords willing to take unhoused people, Bahena said. 

She pointed to how the city enacted its Expedited Housing Initiative as an improvement in the city’s approach to homelessness, like holding events that allow people to complete several steps of the housing process at once, often shortening the move-in window by 18 days. All Chicago also created Chicago Rents to partner with landlords. 

While there’s still money trickling in, Morris said his organization and others need more funding as they face staffing shortages and an increased demand on their needs by both their usual population and asylum seekers. 

Morris said most of the clients served by Olive Branch don’t meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s limited definition of chronic homelessness, keeping them from potentially getting long-term housing support.

To be eligible for housing meant for people experiencing chronic homelessness, individuals must have a disability, including a mental, physical or emotional impairment; live in a place not meant for human habitation or an emergency shelter, and has been homeless for at least 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years, as long as the combined occasions equal at least 12 months and each break in homelessness isn’t more than seven consecutive nights. 

If they’re eligible, a case worker from an organization can help them fill out the forms.

Those who’ve been in jails or substance abuse or mental health treatment facilities, hospitals, or similar facilities, for fewer than 90 days and met the other criteria before entering are also considered homeless under the federal definition. 

Not counted in that definition are those who live doubled up with friends or family who may go from place to place but don’t end up in the city’s network of shelters.

“All too many homeless individuals are left out in the cold because they don’t meet the definition of being chronically homeless,” Morris said. “They have no stable place to call home, they aren’t included in the city’s homelessness numbers and, because they aren’t included in the HUD definition, they don’t end up in many of our shelters.”

Full force of government to fight homelessness

Last month, one of Johnson’s major campaign promises regarding homelessness, an ordinance called “Bring Chicago Home,” gained momentum after a hearing at a city council committee hearing.

The measure would raise the city’s real estate transfer tax on the sales of properties of $1 million or more, creating a dedicated revenue stream to fund homelessness services. 

The proposed tax was previously pitched as a flat tax on property sales above $1 million, which could have raised an estimated $160 million a year. But city officials at the hearing suggested the tax needs to be structured differently to protect the city from legal challenges. Under that scenario, only the portion of a sale above $1 million would face the higher tax rate. City officials are working on estimates for how much revenue that tax would raise.

Under either scenario, the real estate industry argue an increase would hurt the city’s real estate market — not only high-end homes but commercial properties and multi-unit apartment buildings.

On the campaign trail, Johnson championed “Bring Chicago Home” as a way to address homelessness, a major difference between him and the former mayor, who blocked a hearing on the matter late last year.  

Dworkin, the director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said “Bring Chicago Home,” is needed to create a permanent source of funding to support people experiencing homelessness long term since the COVID-related funding is temporary.

Council member Maria Hadden (49th), a lead proponent of the measure, said the council would vote on a resolution later this year so it can appear on city voters’ 2024 primary ballot.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), seen here in a file photo, is one of the leaders supporting an ordinance that would raise the real estate transfer tax to provide consistent funding to help homeless people. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), seen here in a file photo, is one of the leading supporters of an ordinance that would raise the real estate transfer tax to provide consistent funding to help homeless people. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project) Credit: Victor Hilitski, for Illinois Answers Project

Along with support for “Bring Chicago Home,” Johnson also vowed on the campaign trail to reform Chicago zoning ordinances to make it easier to build housing for people who are experiencing homelessness. A spokesperson did not elaborate on what that plan could include.

For people without secure homes like David, the wait adds to the setbacks they already faced.

David said things like shelter are often taken for granted but are the basic building blocks for survival.

“Shelter is huge,” David said. “If you don’t have somewhere to lay down, go to sleep, get up and go to work — what are you going to do?”

Rachel Hinton was an investigative enterprise reporter at the Illinois Answers Project from 2022 to 2023.

Manny Ramos is a former solutions and accountability reporter at the Illinois Answers Project.