Logjam in homeless shelters creating citywide problem for Chicago

On the outside looking in

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By MATT MICHAELS

Dozing off on the el might not seem like a dangerous idea.

But for 43-year-old Frederick Springer, the decision to grab some shut-eye on CTA's Blue Line almost cost him his life.

"I was sleeping good and the next thing I know, I feel something around my neck squeezing tighter and tighter," Springer said. "When I woke up, my eyes were bulging out of my head."

Springer recalled that a group of teenagers nearly choked him to death, simply because he was homeless.

"When their stop came, they finally let me go. But they all ran away laughing at me," Springer said.

The Chicago native has been living on the streets since November 2011. Such unprovoked abuse happens all the time, he said, recalling another incident when a group of boys peed in a cup and threw it on him.

"These young kids ride on the el at night just to beat up the homeless and mess with them," Springer said.

Unfortunately for him, dodging the late-night assaults hasn't been easy. Springer has been unable to find a place of refuge, such as a homeless shelter, for more than five months. But city data show stories like Springer's are becoming more common. According to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, Chicago's homeless population jumped 5 percent between 2007 and 2009, from roughly 5,900 to about 6,200. The troubling trend continued over the next two years, climbing another 6 percent to 6,638 in 2011.

One major reason for the rise in homelessness is a lack of turnover at shelters, according to shelter coordinators citywide.

West Side

The situation on the Lower West Side of Chicago reflects this problem.

Israel Vargas, executive director of the San Jose Obrero Mission in Pilsen, said he has seen a substantial increase in the average length of time spent by the homeless at both men's and women's shelters.

But instead of blaming the economy for the upsurge, Vargas said the city of Chicago must tackle the city's affordable housing crisis. That, he insists, must happen first before the city can ever hope to shorten the amount of time people spend in shelters.

"Chicago does not have affordable housing: period, "Vargas said. "Taking a family of three that is only making $500 a month and placing them into an appropriate apartment for the whole family should be considered affordable housing. There's no such thing here."

North and South Side

A significant increase in the average amount of time a person remained homeless over the last few years is the reason behind decreased turnover, according to the executive director of Lincoln Park Community Shelter.

Erin Ryan said her shelter serves as a transitional shelter - its inhabitants are homeless for a substantial period of time before moving in. According to her records, the people currently living there were homeless for an average of one year before arriving. That's up 20 percent from 2008, when the average stood at 10 months, and up 50 percent from 2006, when the average was eight months.

Ryan cites the recent economic downturn for making it difficult for people to find steady employment, even when they finally find a place of refuge. What's more, the average length of stay in the Lincoln Park shelter has more than doubled over the last four years, Ryan said.

"Fewer people are moving out, which means fewer people are moving in. So more people are stuck at emergency shelters or on the streets, because they can't get into a program like ours," she said.

The story is similar at Clara's House in Englewood.

While the typical length of stay is 120 days at the South Side shelter, founder and President Clara Kirk has been handing out extensions more frequently over the last few years

"We've seen a dramatic increase. If they don't have anywhere to go, we don't put them in the street," Kirk said.

Nationally

Neil Donovan, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the affordable housing crisis is not just an issue in Chicago, but nationally.

"There's been no administration in the last 30 years that's done enough," Donovan said. "President Reagan took a knife to the affordable housing budget, but I don't think there's been any response since then to repair the damage done."

Donovan estimates about 500,000 affordable housing units are needed for those struggling to stay off the streets. He said there are 50,000 such units that's currently available. But in 1980, according to Donovan, there 350,000 available units.

Until the federal and state governments come together to tackle the issue, Donovan fears people like Frederick Springer will continue to fight for their lives on the streets.

"Economically, we could do it," Donovan said. "It would cost about $10.2 billion a year for the next five years to build our way out of this problem."

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