According to the 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey Report, prepared for by the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, there were 5,889 people in the city identified as homeless persons — a 13 percent decrease from the previous year and “the lowest observed figure in over ten years,” according to the report.

That’s a marked improvement, but there is still more the city is trying to do for this often overlooked sub-population, as indicated by a collaboration between the Chicago Police Department’s 25th District, the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on an effort to address the city’s homeless population.

During an informational meeting held earlier this month at the 25th District headquarters, Tom Cotter, a CPD community relations sergeant for the 25th Dist., described the meeting as a “brainstorming session” to discover possible strategies to address homelessness.

“Homeless people are citizens just like everyone else, we don’t discriminate, we don’t criminalize, we want to treat them with respect,” said Cotter. “The biggest thing that breaks our heart is when we see them and it’s below zero and they’re freezing and they absolutely refuse anything from us.”

The meeting was held in the run-up to the annual point-in-time, or PIT, count that DFSS will conduct on the night of Jan. 26 in collaboration with numerous local government bodies, area shelters, social service providers and at least 400 volunteers and staff members, among other partners.

During last year’s PIT count, DFSS staff members counted the number of homeless people identified in the city’s emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities on the night of Jan. 26, 2015. Shelters were instructed to administer surveys to at least 10 percent of people using their services that night.

In addition, trained volunteers were dispatched to numerous areas in the city to count homeless people. Survey teams were also stationed at Red and Blue line terminus points to count homeless people exiting buses and trains.

Last year, PIT count teams counted 4,646 homeless people located in shelters and 1,243 who were unsheltered.

“This marks a 2 [percent] decrease in the sheltered and a 40 [percent] decrease in the unsheltered population from last year’s figures,” the report noted.

What has stayed relatively constant over the last decade, however, is the disproportionately large percentage of homeless people who are African American. Since 2005, the percentage of the city’s homeless population that is black has not dipped below 70 percent even though blacks comprise only around 32 percent of the city’s population.

The second-largest contingent of homeless individuals has historically been the formerly incarcerated. Since 2005, the percentage of the city’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population has not been lower than 51 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Although the total number of homeless people decreased in 2016, “the visibility of homelessness in Chicago is on the rise,” the report stated.

“Some community areas that had few to no homeless persons in previous years now had homeless persons counted within their boundaries,” the report noted. “Mobility of homeless persons is not uncommon; however, Chicago and other urban areas across the nation have seen increases in the number of areas where homeless persons congregate.”

Last January, PIT survey teams counted 23 homeless people in Austin, a significant decrease since 2014 and 2015, when teams counted 49 homeless people in each year. In West Garfield Park and North Lawndale, teams counted 12 and 20 homeless people last year. For West Garfield Park, that was a sharp decrease from 26 in 2015, but it was an increase from 15 in 2015 for North Lawndale.

Alisa Rodriguez, DFSS Deputy Commissioner Homeless Programs, who spoke at the homelessness meeting held earlier this month, said that the lack of affordable housing options often haunts homeless people seeking to finally come in out of the cold.

Specifically, Rodriguez identified affordable housing as being within the 0 to 15 percent range of annual median income (AMI). She said open dialogue about the city’s affordable housing stock is necessary. 

She added that maintaining the safety, quality and security of the available beds DFSS has acquired, while increasing the number of incoming beds, has been a priority for the city. Rodriguez said that DFSS has 5,000 beds currently available, with 500 dedicated to homeless men.

Rodriguez said it’s important for the public to understand the homeless population and not criminalize homelessness. She lamented that DFSS won’t be able to “end homelessness overnight,” but pledged her office is working to address the issue.

DFSS funds a cohort of non-profits that provide outreach and support services. She said DFSS grants non-profits an opportunity to utilize for requests for proposals (RFP) every two years where they can apply for funding.

“Our intent is to make sure that we have a system in place that’s responsive; a system that allows participants to come into homelessness but leave with permanent housing option,” said Rodriguez.

One of DFSS’ primary objectives is to ensure women and children are off the street. Rodriguez said DFSS partners with Chicago Public Schools to ensure no child facing homelessness falls behind in their studies by providing liaisons at each school to provide a support services.

“It’s not that one population is more important than the other, all of our homeless populations are important, but for a child on the street the likelihood of them having the survival skills is low, so we want to make sure they’re safe,” said Rodriguez.

In recent months the City of Chicago has taken a more active role in addressing the homelessness crisis facing all corners of the city. 

In April 2016, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed his Homeless Task Force comprised of key staff members from several city agencies to address homelessness in a collaborative effort with advocates, homeless representatives and nonprofit organizations.

Brittney Burns, Assistant State’s Attorney at Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, said her office works closely with DFSS and the police to ensure homeless people aren’t criminalized for being homeless.