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City official suggests the homeless take cabs

Evelyn Diaz (pictured 2011) is Chicago's commissioner Department Family Support Services. 'We wanted answer questi'Do summer jobs programs actually prevent

Evelyn Diaz (pictured in 2011) is Chicago's commissioner of Department of Family and Support Services. "We wanted to answer the question, 'Do summer jobs programs actually prevent youth violence?' The answer in this case is a resounding ‘Yes.’ These results are telling us that we have hit on something that seems to work," she said, referring to a University of Chicago study.

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Updated: December 2, 2011 8:16AM

The head of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services had a Marie Antoinette moment on Monday — when she suggested that homeless Chicagoans who need overnight transport this winter “take a cab” to emergency shelters.

After testifying at City Council budget hearings, Commissioner Evelyn Diaz was discussing the $2.4 million, mid-year cut in state funding that forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lay off 24 city employees who worked the overnight shift picking up homeless residents and transporting them to shelters.

Diaz was asked what would happen this winter without the overnight shift. How were homeless Chicagoans — many of them suffering from alcohol, substance abuse and mental health problems — supposed to get to emergency shelters overnight? Were they supposed to just hang tough until 8 a.m?

“If they can’t find another alternative,” she said.

Asked to identify an alternative, Diaz said, “Public transportation, cabs.”

When a reporter reminded the commissioner that homeless people can’t afford cab fare, an apparently embarrassed Diaz ignored the question.

Hours later, department spokeswoman Anne Sheahan attempted to explain away the commissioner’s statement.Sheahan said Diaz was referring to an expanded contract with the American Red Cross that, in the absence of overnight homeless services, provides families who lose their homes in a fire with a cab voucher to transport them to shelters.

When reporters were questioning Diaz, there was never any mention of fire victims.

The cab remark sounded a bit like Marie Antoinette’s notorious, “Let ‘em eat cake.”

But, Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, said, “I’m not offended by it. I don’t know that she believes it’s realistic for homeless people to take a cab. She was probably just trying to show how difficult the situation is — that we’re left with choices that really don’t make sense.”

When the overnight shift was eliminated this summer, Dworkin was told Chicago Police officers would transport homeless people who needed shelter after midnight.

Shelter providers subsequently told her police were simply giving people the address of the nearest shelter and asking them to go there.

Pressed to predict what would happen this winter, Dworkin said, “If it’s below zero out, and someone is calling and has nowhere to go, it may end up the police have to transport people. They’re gonna have to come up with a way to help people in the middle of the night.”

Diaz was asked whether she’s confident the city can get through the upcoming winter without some kind of tragedy involving people living on the streets who can’t get help overnight.

She would only say, “We’re gonna be watching the extreme weather. We have the opportunity to shift our current workers to work on different shifts. There are some options available to us,” she said.

“Is it perfect? No. Do I wish I had the funding back? Absolutely. But, we’re gonna do the very best we can.”

It’s not the first time that someone in Diaz’s position stuck their foot in their mouth.

During the 1995 heat wave that killed more than 500 Chicagoans, then-Human Services Commissioner Daniel Alvarez made a far more insensitive remark.

“We’re talking about people [who] die because they neglect themselves,” Alvarez said at the time.

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