Cassiet Robinson, 42, stands outside the St. Francis DePaula homeless shelter with her 2-year-old son, Zabon Noah, where they've been living. Her time to move out expired and she has a three-month extension to find permanent housing. Photo by Ronnie Wachter.

This is the first installment in a three-part series for Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham. Now in its 19th year, Chicago Matters–an award-winning annual public information series made possible by the Chicago Community Trust, with programming by WTTW11, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, the Chicago Public Library and the Reporter–returns to explore how our region can thrive in a global era. For more information, visit

Cassiet Robinson and her 2-year-old son, Zabon Noah, were four months into their stay at the St. Francis DePaula shelter when their time ran out.

Under the city’s plan to end homelessness, shelters like St. Francis could house clients for four months before they had to leave. Robinson requested a three-month extension and got it.

During Robinson’s life, the 42-year-old has conquered drug addiction and domestic violence. Now she’s in a race to conquer homelessness.

Chicago’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness began in 2003, setting up guidelines that gave service providers 120 days to get clients like Robinson into permanent housing.

The goal was to end homelessness by converting overnight shelter beds–”which are predominantly operated by the city–”into interim housing beds, where the homeless could temporarily stay. They would then be transitioned into permanent housing units built by nonprofit developers or existing market-rate units, where their rent could be subsidized.

Mayor Richard M. Daley endorsed the plan in 2003. It had few numbers and no stated funding goals or estimates of how much housing was needed. A year after the plan started, the first numbers emerged. They were later updated, promising 8,700 permanent housing units and 3,632 interim housing beds by 2012. The city based its estimates in part on its 2005 homeless count, which said that on any given day there were roughly 6,715 homeless in the city.

Advocates were hopeful after securing Daley’s support, but were concerned about the low numbers. By their estimates, the city’s homeless population was nearly 21,000 a day, roughly three times greater than the city’s estimate. The city also said 15,000 homeless individuals cycled through the system in a year; advocates calculated it to be more than 73,000.

Today, seven years into the plan, some providers say not enough housing has been built, some clients are being relocated out of state for affordable housing, and most interim housing agencies are granting extensions, unable to meet the 120-day deadline.

“With the economy in this shape, I’m looking to see possibly more people becoming homeless,” said Reggie Harden, director of program services at Matthew House, a permanent housing program.

Most providers say the city has made significant improvements. Innovative initiatives were created, like Street-to- Home, which uses outreach workers to bring the homeless directly from the street into permanent housing. In the past year, the city also set aside money for homelessness prevention under the Family Stabilization Initiative.

But critics say that from the start, the plan lacked realistic homeless estimates and adequate funding. An analysis of spending to end homelessness shows that New York spent nearly 15 times as much per capita as Chicago; Los Angeles invested nearly four times as much. On a more pragmatic level, the plan lacked sufficient housing.

The Chicago Reporter surveyed the city’s 91 homeless housing providers. The Reporter got responses from 20 permanent and 20 interim housing providers and found:

* 14 out of 19 permanent housing providers–”74 percent–”said their units were at or near capacity when the city’s plan began.

* Only 2 out of 20 interim housing providers said they had “no trouble” placing clients into permanent housing.

* Most interim housing providers said they had difficulty placing clients with no income, who were undocumented or had criminal records.

* Most interim housing providers–”10 of the 13 who responded to the question–”placed clients outside of Chicago, including other municipalities and states like Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. Some said the clients chose to relocate elsewhere because they could not find affordable housing within the city limits.

Some city officials and people close to the plan say they don’t expect to end homelessness, but said that at least they’ll improve the system. However, the mayor at news conferences over the past two years has insisted the plan is working.

The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit implementing the plan, is working with the city to re-evaluate whether to increase the number of needed housing units, said Chief Executive Officer Nancy Radner. Even so, she does not believe that by 2012 the city will have sufficient permanent housing units. “The problem is that we don’t have the political will and we don’t have the funding to entirely do it,” Radner said. “What we have been able to do, and what we’ll say at the end of 10 years is, –˜Look, we’ve entirely transformed our system.'”


The long-term effect of this housing bottleneck on the future of Chicago could mean greater hardships for Chicago and local municipalities around transportation, employment and affordable housing, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A century ago, before Chicago even had a homeless services system, famed urban planner Daniel Burnham also had a plan. While it focused on the city’s architecture, Burnham wrote sections on the social need and access to affordable housing. Ironically, those sections were stripped from the draft and were not included in the final version. Those areas were considered “beyond the scope” of the plan, according to a document published by The Burnham Plan Centennial.

With Chicago’s current resources and housing stock, advocates are doubtful that the city will be able to absorb its homeless population. As a result, the population is shifting to the suburbs and across the region, said Lee Deuben, a housing and community development planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “There’s been an increased burden in suburban areas without the social service infrastructure being able to accommodate,” she said.


When the National Alliance to End Homelessness drew up the concept of a 10-year plan in 2000, it didn’t take long for the idea to reach Chicago. Some providers were inspired and hopeful, while others thought it was overreaching. Mayor Daley was one of the first mayors of a major metropolitan city to sign on, and his endorsement had advocates thinking it could be successful, said Paul Selden, an early drafter of the plan and then-director of the Chicago Continuum of Care. But he said courting the political will of someone as tough as Daley also compromised the plan’s success.

“[Daley] or his staff were reticent to go ahead and sign on, I think in part because they believed the scope of it was too large and it would require much more of the city,” Selden said. Drafters began stripping away numbers, dollar amounts and replacing long-term objectives with general statements, he said.

The city dedicated $15 million from the lease of the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge System to pay for the first several years of the plan. But that funding runs out this year and the city does not have a designated funding source to replace it, according to Anne Sheahan, director of public information for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. “Future funding for specific projects is being negotiated and pursued jointly by [the department] and the current delegates,” she said.

Ultimately, the bulk of the money came from the federal government–”a point of contention for advocates who say the city doesn’t spend enough on homelessness. State and federal governments earmark money to local municipalities so that they can serve the homeless. But cities also get discretionary money. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness conducted a survey, aggregating how much discretionary city, state and federal money towns spent or committed between 2003 to 2008 to implement their 10-year plans to end homelessness. The Reporter analyzed that money, not including foundation and private funding, and found that Chicago spent at least $10.22 per capita, compared with $153 per capita by New York City and $40.58 by Los Angeles.

“We knew even back at the time when we were crafting the plan that it was going to take more than what we had [in resources],” said Selden. “The extent to which the city was unwilling to talk about the problem going beyond what current resources would allow meant some very good things could happen over 10 years, but it would never solve the problem.”

With three years until the plan expires, the homeless services system has changed, with room for improvement. Interim housing providers struggle under the weight of several responsibilities–”from providing immediate shelter to connecting clients with services and training to prepare them for permanent housing. They must also locate and place clients in housing, whether in Chicago or elsewhere in the nation within a short timeframe.

The Reporter’s survey shows that nearly all interim housing providers said 120 days wasn’t enough time. Only two of the 20 providers reported that their average placement time for clients was within the 120-day mandate.

Many clients, like Robinson, exceed the limit. She’s lived four years drug-free and is a single mom with a part-time job. She’s also working on her GED. She is still better off than other clients who are more difficult to place, including people with mental illness, poor health, or those who lack legal immigrant status or income, according to the Reporter’s survey.

As the city phased out emergency shelter beds, more homeless turned to interim housing. The only problem was getting in. At the start of the plan, Chicago had 3,783 emergency, overnight and transitional shelter beds, Sheahan said. Just 2,154 beds remain. In data collected by the city for one week in January 2009, interim housing and safe-haven providers turned away 688 households on the basis of having no vacancy. Emergency shelters turned away 90 households that week because they had no vacancy.

“We’ve had a waiting list at least since January of 2008, for over a year,” said Sarah Pegman of San Jose Obrero Mission, an interim housing provider for men in Pilsen.

The city, however, maintains that the plan is effective. “In short, our plan is working,” Mayor Daley said to the media in August 2007. A year later, in June 2008, he made the same statement to attendees at a conference sponsored by the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. But in 2007, around the time when Daley was making these speeches, some providers were coming to their own conclusions based on their experiences in the trenches. They approached the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and formed a group called Concerned Providers.

“We had a group of providers come to us and say, –˜We have lots of concerns about what’s going on with the plan, and we need a voice,'” said the coalition’s director of policy, Julie Dworkin.

The group drafted a position statement. About 30 providers signed on to the statement, which made several key points: The plan’s implementation was “not working,” the city had “insufficient –˜affordable’ housing” to transition people to permanent housing and the plan was “extremely underfunded.”

The group brought the document before a meeting of service providers held by the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, asking representatives to vote on whether they supported the position statement. “Every single person in that room raised their hand,” Dworkin said. “So everyone shared the same concerns, but different providers had different stomachs for taking on [the] city, and most people don’t want to make waves because they’re worried about losing [their] funding.”

The full position statement never reached the city. The alliance implemented some and is currently launching a reassessment of the plan.

Seven years into the project, according to its own metrics, the city’s plan is nearly complete. Radner said the city has 6,000 units of permanent housing and decreased the homeless population by 12 percent, according to the city’s point-in-time count. The city has just 2,000 units of permanent housing left to build, Radner said. The Alliance says the system now puts 52 percent of homeless resources toward permanent housing, up from 38 percent when the plan began. Still, most advocates believe the system has a long way to go.

Britt Shawver, chief executive officer and executive director of Housing Opportunities for Women, has led the organization for the past 14 years. She was one of the early providers who brought the idea of the 10-year plan to Chicago and was heavily involved for the first five years.

Shawver said the city’s plan reflects the dollars that are available, and they built a plan that they could fund. In the beginning, they reviewed the funding sources and the plan got watered down and scaled back, she added.

“When you have that many people in the system, what does consensus produce? The lowest common denominator,” Shawver said. “Maybe it was a lowest common denominator plan, but it was a plan we started. And I do think good things have come from it.”

James Edwards and Jessica Young helped research this story.

Marian Wang

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