November 23, 2011
When was the last time someone asked you for change (and I’m not talking about the Obama kind)? You may have been shopping on State Street or riding the ‘L’ on your way to work. What was your response? As of the last official count, about 672, 000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the United States.
Recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel
has taken steps to make sure homeless people seeking help in the early hours of the morning during the winter can get rides to shelters. Under the mayor’s plan, $200,000 would be set aside to reinstate two to three homeless outreach teams between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. The funds would fill a gap left by a $2.3 million state funding cut that eliminated late-night rides for street people (Hal Dardick, “Emanuel Wants to Restore Rides to Homeless Shelters,” Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2011).
Locally, the Lincoln Park Community Shelter (“LPCS”) has seen an 18–25% increase in the number of people looking for shelter in the past two years (however, from 2005 to 2009 the number of people homeless on the streets actually decreased by 49% according to The Chicago Alliance). For 25 years, the LPCS has been providing comprehensive social services to the Lincoln Park Community. “While people are here, we take away all the speculation of ‘how am I going to meet my immediate needs?’ We provide three meals a day, a warm bed, and storage space,” says LPCS Executive Director Erin Ryan. The average stay at the shelter is about six months. That timeline allows visitors to establish a network of support by forming relationships with the staff and one another. However, more important, it gives the homeless an opportunity to work on various acute health issues (addiction, physiological disorders, etc.). The National Alliance to End Homelessness found that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to access the most costly health care services. According to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine, homeless people spent an average of four days longer per hospital visit than comparable non-homeless people. This extra cost, approximately $2,414 per hospitalization, is attributable to homelessness. Extended time at the shelter also encourages visitors to brush up on their interview skills.
The majority of people that come to the shelter are looking for work, but with fewer jobs available, the employment market is now the single hardest hurdle the shelter has had to overcome within the past two years. “It’s taking our visitors longer to find work, so they stay longer, which means that we don’t have as much room to move new people in. It’s creating this bottleneck of people who really need services. We have 35 beds, so we can only serve 35 people at a time,” says Ryan. To help LPCS’s temporary residents find work, the staff provides a lot of onsite training through a variety of daily activities. Classes are taught by volunteers and can range from time management to anger management, budgeting, computer classes, job training, resume reviews, art classes, and discussion groups. Over half of the people that live at the LPCS have some type of college education. According to Ryan, “We have one woman that is training to become a pastry chef. Now we can pair a professional volunteer with the resident’s desired employment field.” However, one of the biggest problems with homelessness is that it’s very cyclical — especially with people that hold low-skilled jobs.
More often than not, guests have already leaned on their family to a certain extent. The extreme case of that would be that they have completely worn out their welcome. With that, advocates are trying to expand the definition of homelessness. For example, the question of “How long have you been homeless?” is open to interpretation. One might define homelessness as the length of time someone has been on the street, sleeping on a friend’s couch, been out of a job, or not had a place of their own. Overall, Ryan’s goal at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter is to break the cycle of homelessness within each individual for good, insuring that the shelter sets people up to be successful in the long term and not become homeless again.