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Solving the City’s Housing Crisis Will Protect the Lives of Unhoused Chicagoans

encampment An encampment on Chicago's Lower West Side. Protecting the safety of our unhoused neighbors requires us to expand access to housing and widen the range of supportive service options available to the population.

All of us at The Night Ministry were deeply saddened to hear of the tragic loss of Kevin Powell last month. We mourn with his family and others who knew and cared for him. Mr. Powell, who was killed while utilizing Chicago's public transit system, was one of the more than 65,000 Chicago residents who experience homelessness every year.[1]

Mr. Powell's murder, along with the fatal attack on Joseph Kromelis last year, makes it abundantly clear that Chicago's housing crisis is a matter of life and death. These shocking deaths underscore the urgent need for Chicago to both expand access to housing and widen the range of supportive service options available to some of our city's most vulnerable residents: those who are unhoused or experiencing housing instability. The city of Chicago cannot tolerate violence against its unhoused residents, and indeed more can be done to protect their safety.

Homelessness is life-threatening, and every death of a neighbor experiencing homelessness is tragic and preventable. When people are forced by a failing system to live in public spaces, they are at greater risk for potentially fatal conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory ailments. They are also more likely to be victims of crime. These aforementioned illnesses, as well as serious injury due to accident or violence, are prevalent in the medical care that The Night Ministry provides to those living on the streets, in encampments, and on the CTA trains.

The capacity of Chicago's shelter system was severely strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has not recovered despite abatement of the public health crisis. This is certainly a factor in the increasing number of individuals who have been seeking refuge in public places, such as parks, the CTA and, until recently, O'Hare International Airport. But, even before the pandemic, the gap between the availability of shelter beds and the number of unsheltered Chicago residents was astronomically wide.

Simply increasing the number of available shelter beds, however, is not a solution in itself. Shelters do provide essential services by addressing residents' immediate needs while connecting them to further services. But they are a stop gap measure, however necessary, in addressing homelessness. As a short-term solution to a housing crisis, shelters are not sufficient to address the long-term needs of unhoused individuals or the city's housing crisis. Furthermore, many of the individuals served by The Night Ministry share with us their reluctance to go to a shelter. Lack of privacy, a sense of danger, strict requirements, distant locations, and short operating hours are a just a few of the valid reasons many of our clients will forgo attempting to find a bed at a shelter.

We believe that one of the best ways to keep people safe as they navigate our city is to provide robust services along with access to affordable, safe housing. Housing is a human right, as is the right to safety and security, and the two are interconnected.

We need to preserve existing affordable housing and slow the rising rental costs and gentrification that pushes people out of their homes. We need to create more long term and permanent housing programs that offer a wider range of options and supports and that are developed in consultation with the people they serve. In addition to ensuring immediate safety and security for those seeking shelter in public spaces, we need to strengthen the scaffolding of our service system to equip service providers to meet varied challenges that individuals face, exacerbated by homelessness, such as health care.

There are many such impactful programs currently operating in Chicago, but we need an exponential increase in their numbers in a city where an increasing number of individuals lack a permanent place to call home. To achieve that, we need to bring meaningful and dedicated resources to bear, such as the funds that would be generated by the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, an estimated $163 million dollars annually dedicated to homelessness services by restructuring the Real Estate Transfer Tax. Chicago's current city council denied voters the opportunity to vote on this proposal in February's election, but the city's new mayor and city council members have an opportunity to pass this important legislation.

We realize that the broad solutions we are advocating do not address the immediate and individual safety needs of our unsheltered community members. But unless we remedy the underlying issues that prevent every Chicagoan from remaining housed, we will continue to rely on insufficient solutions and mourn additional senseless deaths.

[1] Samuel Carlson, Scott Hulver, Julie Dworkin (September 2022). Illinois State of Homelessness Report (2022). Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Available at www.chicagohomeless.org/estimate.

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