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Homeless survey aims to focus aid where it’s needed

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Updated: January 27, 2013 7:55PM

Ten degrees. Minus-four wind chill.

And at least five blankets bundling his body on the ground.

As Chicagoans hid in heated homes and apartments, Mr. Woods tried to get a good night’s rest next to a roaring expressway ramp in Pilsen.

Until about 9:45 p.m., when Beverley Ebersold and Jennifer Cossyleon knelt down and gently nudged him.

They introduced themselves, then began a survey: Do you want to participate? Have you already completed this survey tonight? Where are you staying? How long have you been homeless?

Mr. Woods — not many first names this night — obliged as the volunteers shivered. It’s not the first time someone’s offered to help.

“He said he’s not able to find permanent supportive housing, but I encouraged him to continue to work with us to find the services that he so desperately needs,” said Joel Mitchell, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.

Mitchell was one of the more than 300 volunteering to conduct the city’s biennial 2013 Point-In-Time survey of Chicago’s homeless Tuesday. The city says 234 square miles of Chicago were covered by the 200 outside volunteers, plus 100 city and sister agency employees. Homeless people also help with the count, getting a $25 stipend for their help.

The city last year unveiled its plan to end homelessness that in part helps people find permanent housing and become self-sufficient.

The survey, however, is not intended to just scoop the homeless off city streets.

“The more accurate [the survey], the more funding we’ll be able to secure, and also we’ll be able to learn more about the demographics about where our homeless are, and that helps plan our services,” said Matt Smith, spokesman for the city’s support services department. “Let’s say there’s an area that’s underserved and we count a large amount of people there, that helps us decide where to place our services and centers in the future. This is a really good thing.”

Volunteers handed out hats and gloves, not just to help brace the cold, but to know which homeless had already participated in the study. The answers are key to what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will assess as a basis for federal funding for Chicago’s homeless programs. The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness submits an annual application to secure funds, which then are distributed by the Emergency Fund and several collaborating agencies across the city.

That’s the No. 1 priority, but helping the homeless is the whole point of the survey. So volunteers also ask the humane question: Do you want a warm place to stay tonight?

Woods said yes, but volunteers are trained to say crews can’t come get him until the count is over, a bit after 1:30 a.m. because volunteers are tying up the city’s usual modes of transporting the homeless. Still, Mitchell calls for help, and requests a transport to a city building in the interim, until he can be placed in a shelter, or at least a police station or hospital to warm up.

The city says there’s room for Woods — and a lot more like him.

Chicago can provide beds to about 3,200 homeless people per night but can expand that to 3,700 based on emergencies and weather. That doesn’t count the help from other agencies like Catholic Charities or Deborah’s Place that also provide space for the homeless.

More than 1,700
on the streets

Tuesday’s count also included those in shelters to get a comprehensive number of the city’s homeless population. This year’s numbers won’t be released until the data is analyzed, likely by summer.

In 2011’s Chicago count, there were 6,598 homeless people; 4,873 were in shelter and 1,725 were found on the street or in other public places, according to the city.

That’s up from 2009 when 6,240 were counted: 5,356 in shelters and 884 outside of shelters.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors report on Hunger and Homelessness, among Chicago’s homeless between Sept. 2011 and 2012, one-third were victims of domestic violence, 26 percent were severely mentally ill, 13 percent were unemployed, eight percent were veterans and six percent were HIV positive.

In Illinois, there were 14,144 homeless in 2012, compared to 14,009 in 2011, according to HUD.

Nationally, HUD says 633,782 were homeless in 2012, largely unchanged from 2011. Despite that, a HUD study found significant declines in the number of homeless veterans and those experiencing long-term chronic homelessness.

‘Walking into
someone’s living room’

“On a night like tonight, we don’t want to see any children with families on the street,” Adriana Camarda, chief planner for the city’s homeless count told volunteers about an hour before they scoured the city. The veteran and first-time volunteers at 10 S. Kedzie were assigned either homeless “hot spots,” trains or buses.

“In this case, we’re doing it late at night. For us, waking up a homeless person in the middle of the night, it might be like walking into someone’s living room,” Smith said. “So we have to give special instructions to our volunteers ... keeping a safe distance. And if they don’t want to be engaged, don’t be engaging them.”

A Chicago Police officer helped out with directions in getting to the first hot spot: “I’m pretty sure a family lives over there,” he said.

Nestled under viaducts under the Dan Ryan Expy., shadows could be seen warming their hands near a fire. But volunteers couldn’t get to them. The homeless had hopped over a state property fence near a storage area.

One jumped over the fence. He stopped to talk to the volunteers. Mr. Osborne grinned and took some gloves.

“I walk around the neighborhood. I’m self-employed,” Osborne said.

He has no kids. And he’s been on the streets since 1991, when he was released from prison.

“Wish you were here with a truck full of Jack Daniels,” he joked after answering yes to having abused alcohol. But his answer could help get more funding for supportive services to treat homeless people with substance and alcohol abuse issues.

About two miles north, as the hungry got hot dogs and Polish sausages on Union Street near Roosevelt, the Catholic Charities van took a U-turn up to Ruble.

There they found a makeshift tent, about 10 feet wide. Cossyleon approached, and a man popped out of the tent. A woman hid inside.

The husband and wife had been there for nearly a year, with nothing more than the tent of bed sheets, covers and blue tarp to shield themselves from the weather.

Cossyleon, a doctoral student at Loyola University Chicago, continued the count until 1:30 a.m. There wasn’t just one person that stuck out in her mind, “rather each person I spoke to taught me something unique.”

“What often gets lost in textbooks, journal articles, and statistics is that homeless individuals are people just like us and they have rights, wants and needs,” Cossyleon said. “Many of the woman and men I encountered that night wanted housing and not just one night at a shelter, but stable and decent housing. Isn’t that what we all want?”

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