Lisa Mears, 50, lost her job two years ago, after working in the Las Vegas retail and casino industry for 11 years. Employers would not hire her without a GED. Her mom died when she was 12. Her dad was an alcoholic, who abused her. She was estranged from her five grown children. She was broke and helpless.
Mears, originally from Round Lake, returned to Chicago and found shelter at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph in East Garfield Park. It was a tough transition. Mears arose at 6:30 every morning for the first two months and wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood until she could return to Franciscan at 7:30 p.m., because she could not stay there during the day.
“To be outside when it is cold and snowing,” said Mears from inside Franciscan’s main room, a dimly lit converted warehouse with 209 beds and creaky fans in the corners to dilute the earthy aroma of too many unbathed bodies. “It is a lonely feeling. You feel so disoriented, unwanted and unloved.”
Mears says Franciscan was supportive during her ordeal. It asked her to volunteer at the shelter. In exchange she was able to stay there during the day. It assigned her a case manager, Curtis Cotten, who advised Mears to apply for Chicago Housing Authority housing a year and half ago, but she never heard back.
“The more I asked for help, the more doors were shut in my face,” Mears said. Meanwhile CHA units are unoccupied.
One out of six CHA units is unoccupied — 3,647 out of its 21,209 units, according to its fiscal year 2013 annual plan. Meanwhile, the agency has 40,000 families waiting for homes, the maximum it will accept on its waitlist. The list was opened in June and August for only the second time since 1999. The only other time was in 2010.
Applicants were competing just for a spot on the list. Lucky ones who made it were randomly assigned a number between 1 and 40,000. Once a unit becomes available meeting their needs, a process that can take five to seven years, the CHA will notify the applicant. It does not guarantee housing, because the applicant still needs to pass the CHA screening process.
The CHA says the unoccupied units are not suitable for tenants, so can’t be used to relieve the waiting list backlog.
“Our vacant and offline units face significant deterioration and require exorbitant expenses to repair them. It does not make economic sense to re-lease vacated units or change the status to offline with our plans to redevelop them,” said Wendy Parks, CHA director of communications, in an email.
The CHA’s Plan for Transformation was approved by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development in 2000. At the time the agency had 38,000 housing units. The plan called for demolishing 18,000 obsolete units and renovating or rebuilding 25,000 units within 10 years. Twelve years later, the CHA has reached 85 percent of its goal.
Among the housing slated for renovation in the original plan were the 1,998 units in Altgeld Gardens complex on the far South Side. Recently, the CHA instead announced plans to demolish 648 or about one-third of the units.
Public housing advocates acknowledge that Altgeld Gardens is substandard, but say the entire property needs to be re-evaluated instead of addressed a few units at a time.
“Altgeld’s facilities are inadequate. We would like to see an urban planning process undertaken to figure out how to utilize the almost 2,000 units on the property,” said Julie Brown, senior staff counsel for the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.”
The Lathrop Homes on the near Northwest Side is another CHA property where the plans keep changing. It once was a burgeoning community.
“It was kind of a neat community,” said Jose Zayas, 63, who grew up at Lathrop and lived there in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. “I felt safe, supported and was proud to be a member of Lathrop Homes.”
Today, only 170 of the 925 units at Lathrop are occupied. The CHA and its development team, Lathrop Community Partners, recently announced three design concepts, which would reduce public housing from 925 to 400 units at Lathrop, which sits along 35 acres of prime real estate along the east bank of the Chicago River.
The design concepts would increase the total number of units to 1,600, the difference comprising 50 percent market-rate and 25 percent affordable housing. However, the plan calls for high-rises, which community residents oppose.
Brown is on board with mixed-income development, but is concerned with the reduction in the number of units for public housing.
“Our position on Lathrop is that it should be a mixed-income development, but the CHA should make a commitment to adding more units on the North Side to offset the units lost due to redevelopment,” Brown said.
The CHA says occupied units will increase at Lathrop and will afford residents more opportunities.
“All three scenarios include 400 units of public housing. But they also include retail development that will enable our residents to work and shop locally,” said James Isaacs, office development manager for the CHA.
There were 105,338 homeless in Chicago over the course of 2011-12, according to a just-released report by the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, an advocacy group. This is a 12 percent increase from the previous year.
“The lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness in Chicago,” said Julie Dworkin, director for policy at the coalition. Dworkin said the coalition is working with the CHA to address the issue, but did not want to comment further.
Franciscan’s executive director, Diane Foust, echoed Dworkin’s comment.
“Our biggest obstacle in placing our qualified pool is the lack of affordable housing options in Chicago,” Foust said.
Franciscan serves 2,000 chronically homeless people each year, Foust said. One-third of its homeless, which include Mears, qualify for permanent housing.
“They need identification, some form of income, even if it is Social Security and, most importantly, a desire for housing,” said Darlene Bell, a case manager at Franciscan.
Franciscan still has 370 people, more than half its qualified pool, who have not received permanent housing as of Oct. 31.
Mears is one of the lucky 160 homeless people at Franciscan to receive permanent housing this year, albeit not with the CHA. She just learned that she will move into Rebecca Johnson Apartments, sponsored by not-for-profit Deborah’s Place, once she receives approval from the Illinois Department of Human Services, standard protocol for a homeless person transitioning out of a shelter.
“I have never been without housing before. This has been hard on me. But having a place to live will give me confidence to get a job and rebuild my life,” Mears said through tears.