Cold and snowy weather is nothing new in Chicago, but for those experiencing homelessness, the weather adds another layer of difficulty to an already punishing situation.
This week, the city conducted its annual count of the homeless population, a number that thanks to the pandemic is expected to be higher than the 2021 total of nearly 4,447 people.
Advocates for the homeless say that data may not accurately reflect the actual number of people who lack stable housing.
Jose Muñoz, executive director of La Casa Norte, says he is seeing overwhelming demand for housing in Chicago, due in part to the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of individuals that aren’t counted when it comes to homelessness. We have a lot of individuals who are doubling up, staying with family, living out of their car, who don’t actually ever walk into a shelter,” he said. “Before the pandemic began, we estimated there were about 58,000 people who are experiencing homelessness because of this. And those that are impacted the most are always going to be the ones who are already facing poverty before the pandemic began. Mostly the folks that were hit the hardest during the pandemic … the African American and Latino communities.”
Neli Vazquez Rowland, co-founder and president of A Safe Haven Foundation, says her experience aligns with Muñoz’s observation.
“We’ve been doing this now for 27 years and we’ve never seen it as bad as it is right now in terms of the demand for our services,” Vazquez Rowland said.
Vazquez Rowland says that at A Safe Haven, eligible people in need can find help quickly.
“What makes us unique is the fact that people can actually walk in the door and get assessed in terms of their physical, their education, their employment issues, their housing issues, and they get somebody private accommodations and we provide all these wraparound services in a way that’s coordinated and sequential.”
Vazquez Rowland says that in her organization’s experience, community resistance to housing in their neighborhoods can be overcome with outreach.
“We do meet with the city council members to make sure that there’s going to be the political will and the support. And we invite people from the community when we look at moving into the community to come and see what we’re doing and come and visit some of our facilities,” said Vazquez Rowland. “And I’m super proud to say that our buildings are absolutely beautiful. They’re an asset to the community … it’s just a matter of educating people and helping them understand that the people that were serving are probably even people that live in those communities already, but now they’re actually getting the right kind of housing that’s going to keep them from becoming homeless or falling on hard times.”
The youth La Casa Norte serves have been particularly affected by the fallout from the pandemic, says Muñoz.
“When the schools shut down, services shut down … they had a lot of youth that were relying on those services to have a safe place to shelter in place, to have been able to put food in their bellies. And so that continues to be an issue right now, we’re seeing youth that are coming into our program that are looking for opportunities to find stable housing.”
For people facing a housing crisis who need immediate assistance, Muñoz offers the following advice:
• Call 311. You can ask for short-term help, seek shelter, or even find your local warming center.
• For those seeking rental assistance, please call La Casa Norte at 773-276-4900 ext 233 to be notified of emergency assistance programs being offered.
• For youth in need of assistance use the StreetLight Chicago app, access the Youth Homelessness Handbook or call La Casa Norte
• For general information and to access La Casa Norte’s supportive services, please call (773) 276-4900 on Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or email [email protected].
To alleviate the housing crisis in the future, both Muñoz and Vazquez Rowland are looking for public support for HB 3949.
“This bill actually is about elevating homeless providers and organizations to become part of the critical infrastructure,” Vazquez Rowland said. “So as you see support coming to hospitals and to nursing homes, we would like to see that type of support come to homeless organizations as well, since we are serving the most vulnerable populations in the city of Chicago.”