When visiting communities across the country, I am always reminded of the strength, coping and survival skills of persons experiencing homelessness. I woke up in the morning with raw, burnt-feeling skin on my face after participating in Chicago’s Point in Time Count on the night of January 22, 2013. The City of Chicago Department of Family Support Services led the efforts in partnership with the Chicago Alliance, numerous service providers, police, hospitals and volunteers across Chicago. During sub-zero temperatures, over 200 volunteers explored the 234 square miles of Chicago to count persons experiencing homelessness on the streets, on CTA trains, and in parks and abandoned buildings.
The team I participated with was led by the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFFS) Deputy Commissioner, Joel Mitchell, and included DFFS Communications Director Matthew Smith, Editor of Streetwise Suzanne Hanney, and Jennifer Cossyleon, a PhD student at Loyola University. Several media outlets followed us to our first location under the Dan Ryan Freeway, where we spotted movement around a metal barrel, deep under the overpass with flames providing some heat. As our team attempted to find an opening through the fence, we came upon a shopping cart; next to it were layers and layers of blankets. As the team walked closer to the cart, a man peered at Joel from under the covers. Joel extended a warm and friendly “hello” and shared that we were on the streets tonight to talk to persons experiencing homelessness to help the city improve services and get much needed resources to aid those efforts. Names were exchanged. Joel asked if he would mind answering a few questions and the man kindly obliged, sharing information freely from under his layers of blankets. He shared that he had not talked to anyone else tonight, but had been approached by other staff while living on the street, and had not been able to get housing.
Rough, calloused, and arthritic, his hands showed the wear and tear of years of living on the street. I asked him “Do you want come out of the cold tonight, to go to a warmer spot? The temperatures are dangerous tonight.” He replied, “Yes, that would be good.” Joel arranged for a transport to pick him up and take him to one of the City’s Service Centers for connection to services. As we went back to our van, I worried the gentleman might change his mind about going to a service center if he had to leave his shopping cart, but we had to move because we had more people and geography to canvass..
At another spot under a freeway underpass some of the team and media kept their distance, as Joel and Jenny approached a meticulous makeshift home made out of boxes and blankets. A couple was living there and doing their best to stay warm. One of our team members was able to complete a survey, and commented on the organization and pride that the couple took in building their home on the streets. For those who work in outreach day in and day out, understanding the pride with which makeshift housing is built is not uncommon: I had the opportunity to shadow a team in Detroit several years ago and experienced it as well. That particular day, like tonight, is often about more than just counting people and taking stock of their living situation, though: it can be about connecting individuals to services and a place to keep warm so they can eventually leave the streets. That day in Detroit, the outreach team engaged a young woman to seek medical treatment and literally saved her life because gangrene was setting into her foot. The work of outreach teams in Chicago is no different, and I had the honor of working beside them this cold night.
I was surprised at the number of people we encountered on the streets, but not surprised at people taking refuge in hospitals with a wind chill of -10 F. At the hospital, the waiting room was packed. Warm coffee and hot cocoa provided some hydration to the many people who were terrified of freezing to death. The hospitals we stopped at provided a sanctuary and very temporary solution for an emergency need. However, we know the solution that helps reduce costs for emergency shelters, hospitals, and jails is permanent supportive housing. Matt Smith of the City’s Department of Family Support Services stated “Our goal is to not place people in emergency shelter, but to get them out of shelter and into permanent housing.” The commitment and coordination of all participating in this count and in homeless services every day demonstrates that Chicago is on its way to full implementation of Plan 2.0, Chicago’s Plan to End Homelessness. Around 1:00 AM our team headed back to Garfield Center to return our completed surveys and spend a few minutes debriefing. On the drive back to our warm comforts, Jenny, Suzanne and I shared the impact and importance of the work tonight and every day, so that all Americans have a place to call home.