The number of homeless people in Chicago decreased from 2005 to 2007 by almost 12 percent, according to city officials and Mayor Richard Daley.
This is the first time the city has attempted to collect scientific numbers to track the homeless population. Critics, however, said the statistics aren’t perfect.
“[The] numbers are showing results,” said Nancy Radner, director of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. “We cannot solve a problem if we cannot quantify a problem.”
Radner and others note that there seems to be fewer homeless people as the city reaches the halfway point of the mayor’s 10-year plan to rework its approach to the homeless.
Others, however, don’t share the city’s optimism.
“I beg to differ with the mayor,” said South Sider Phillip House, 55, who has been homeless on and off for year.
Chicago began a 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in January 2003. Public and private groups spent $154 million on the plan in the last fiscal year.
The strategy focuses on helping people before they become homeless and shifting homeless people from shelters to permanent and interim housing. Shelters kick people out during the day whereas the other arrangements let people develop a home.
Housing for homeless services is now 52 percent permanent and 27 percent shelters, according to the city
The city also consolidated government and independent homeless service organizations into the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. Radner, the director, said greater cooperation allowed groups to count the homeless for the first time.
A survey found nearly 6,000 homeless Chicagoans in January, compared to about 6,700 two years earlier. The city got its statistics by using volunteers to check the streets and shelters simultaneously to minimize double-counting.
Critics say the numbers only look at a few years and don’t include people who sometimes sleep with families or live in abandoned buildings.
Even those who were homeless at one point expressed doubts about the numbers – and the plan.
“Twelve percent? I don’t feel that,” said Keith Wills, 46, who went from living off the charity of relatives to working and living with the Inspiration Corporation, one of the homeless programs city officials tout.
“I hope that it works, but I don’t know if it’s just some politician stuff. It just works if a person wants to change here,” he said, pointing to his heart.
For nine months with Imagination Corps. Wills lived in a studio apartment with a refrigerator and microwave while he took food service classes.
A volunteer for Imagination Corporation gave Wills a job washing dishes and helping prepare food at a restaurant. Once he started making some money, Wills moved into market-rate housing. It’s great, he said.
But homeless services still have wait lists and restrictions, and many homeless aren’t aware that there’s help out there.
One block north of the Imagination Corps.’s Living Room Cafe on the South Side, Phillip House reclined under the el tracks. A shopping cart rested nearby, overflowing with garbage bags stuffed with his belongings and recycled items he planned to cash in for 10 cents per pound.
House said he didn’t know of any services for the homeless.
“I guess it’s every man for himself,” said House, who grew up in Chicago’s child foster care system.
A few blocks west, George Smith, 38, said services for the homeless aren’t realistic.
Smith, homeless for more than a decade, said drug tests, a lack of transportation and steps such as writing a cover letter discourage homeless people from programs. Also, about 50 percent of homeless people have a history of incarceration, which can make getting a job difficult, according to the Chicago Housing Department
To Smith, homeless services mean going to the shelter for a night, waking up at 5:30 a.m., grabbing a donut and a coffee, and then being forced out for the day a few hours later.
“It’s cool,” he said. “But I don’t want that.”
Demarko Baker, 36, who lives with her family, said she’ll begin a training program that pays her to prepare for a job where she’ll make $10 an hour picking up trash.
“I don’t want to be on the streets,” she said. “Everybody ain’t out here selling drugs. I want to earn my money.”