Homeless individuals who live under Lake Shore Drive viaducts on Chicago's North Side met Monday morning with city officials to discuss a new pilot program that will provide them with housing and support services.
Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler and North Side Alds. James Cappleman (46th) and Harry Osterman (48th) were at the meeting, held at Weiss Memorial Hospital. Also in attendance were various homeless advocates, service providers and community members.
At issue was a city pilot program, announced late last month, aimed at placing 75 chronically homeless individuals into permanent housing. The homeless individuals live in tent encampments, also known as tent cities, under viaducts near Lake Shore Drive at Irving Park Road and Foster, Lawrence and Wilson Avenues.
Thus far, the city has completed assessments for 63 out of the 75 individuals expected to be included in the pilot program and has matched them without outreach teams.
"Our goal for this pilot is neither to criminalize nor to harass the homeless," Butler said. "For us, success is housing these individuals and helping them move toward stability. It does not mean, to us as the city, that there will never again be homeless people living in this community, or even under those viaducts."
Butler said the new program is not being supported with federal funds, which is one reason why the city has decided to launch it as a pilot.
Asked how the program will be funded, Butler said, "We are literally cobbling together, if you will, funds from inside our house at DFSS."
The department, she added, is also in talks with some private funders who may "want to partner with the city in pilots like this."
Laura Schwartz, 52, who lives under the Wilson Avenue viaduct, attended today's meeting. Schwartz said she and other tent city residents are looking forward to the possibility of "having housing and getting off the street" and "getting back to a normal lifestyle."
"It's very important for everybody to get housing," she said. "We'd like to thank all the people that have made donations to tent city and to other areas. We gratefully appreciate your help."
The city intends to match pilot program participants with housing options that best serve their needs. Some participants, for example, may qualify for the city's Rapid Re-Housing Program, which provides rental assistance and supportive services to homeless individuals with income. Others may be eligible for Chicago Housing Authority units geared toward seniors.
Officials are also looking into whether participants can be placed in units within the city's permanent supportive housing stock. Among other potential housing options, the city plans to conduct an outreach effort to find landlords willing to participate in the program.
The goal is to have the 75 individuals placed into permanent housing by July, Butler said.
In the meantime, meeting attendees wanted assurance that those living in tent encampments will not be kicked out by police. Last year, Chicago police cleared out individuals from under the viaducts, an action some at the meeting said is still occurring. Based on their past treatment by the city, homeless individuals said they feel a level of distrust toward the administration and the program.
Butler spoke to those concerns.
"That is not our intention to harass people, specifically during the pilot," she said. "One of the things that we recognize is that the city doesn't necessarily have trust established with this community, and it's one of the reasons why we're trying to bring other folks to the table that do have that trust. So trying to balance the normal role that we may have at the city with the goals of the pilot is not an easy thing, but we are attempting to do that."
Cappleman said DFSS, the Chicago Police Department and various other agencies should coordinate action plans during the pilot program.
"Ticketing people and arresting people who are living under the viaducts does no good. Actually, it sends us backwards," the alderman said. "We need to go forward, and that means we need to look at getting really intensive case management and putting these people into homes as quickly as possible."
Some homeless advocates questioned the pilot program's timing.
"Why is this announcement being made right now?" Andy Thayer with the Uptown Tent City Organizers and Gay Liberation Network said at a news conference before the meeting. "We (had) a long, cold winter of people sleeping underneath the viaducts, and the city's response was only legal harassment and not doing anything about real housing for these folks."
Thayer added: "In this context, a pilot program is a token program. It's a token program to clean out the viaducts just in time for the spring and summer festivals, which is what's really going on here."
Advocates also stressed the need for more homeless services citywide.
To bolster the city's homeless programs, Cappleman said he is pushing for a new ordinance. The proposal, which is backed by the mayor, would provide a "specified stream of money" for efforts to help chronically homeless people. Under the plan, some $2 million in annual funding for city homeless programs would come from a 4 percent surcharge on house-sharing services, like Airbnb.
"I'm working with the mayor's office and DFSS to make that happen," Cappleman said of the proposal.
Uptown housing activist Ryne Poelker expressed skepticism over the proposed surcharge.
"Two million dollars a year is really not an adequate amount of money. I don't even think $2 million would be enough to end homelessness in one neighborhood," he told reporters before the meeting. "If this was a priority to (the mayor), maybe he could (steer) as much resources towards housing people as he has been towards the Lucas Museum or the (Hyatt) Pritzker hotel."
Poelker also pointed to a controversial Uptown housing project, which the Chicago City Council approved in February. The $125 million luxury housing development, which calls for a $15.8 million tax increment financing (TIF) subsidy, is planned for the former Columbus Maryville Academy site near the city's lakefront.
"We're going to keep demanding that they use that TIF site for affordable housing and to house these people," Poelker said in remarks after the meeting. "This is a perfect opportunity. If this developer doesn't go through, well here's an idea. Because there's plenty of homeless people in Uptown who need it. There's over 100 people under those viaducts. There's probably another 100 people who sleep at Montrose Harbor and the parks, and then there's another 1,000 homeless shelter beds in Uptown. So, the need for that kind of idea is definitely there, and I hope that something happens with that TIF site."