Counting Chicago's homeless population

January 23, 2014

WBEZ/Shannon Heffernan
Men and women huddle beneath blankets in below freezing temperatures. Last year, volunteers counted thousands of people living on the street.

On one of the coldest nights of the year, the City of Chicago set out to count its homeless population.

It took hundreds of people to carry out Wednesday’s survey. Shelters did their own headcount, police covered abandoned buildings, the Chicago Housing Authority checked its closed properties and volunteers fanned out across the city, riding public transportation, and checking the streets.

The volunteers get a list of survey questions. If people don't want to talk, the volunteers are instructed to guess their approximate age and race, and mark them on a tally sheet.

The group I am with went to Lower Wacker Drive. They found a couple huddled together, underneath blankets at least a foot deep. The woman in the couple turned her back and burrowed deeper into her blankets while the man sat up.

A volunteer introduced herself and started the survey.

“Is this your first time being homeless?”

“In and out,” he said, “Working, and so forth. And then back homeless again.”

The questions are mostly yes or no. But some people told us extra details, like what sort of jobs they pick up during the day and what religious beliefs they hold.

“Any kids?” the volunteer asked.

One man said his kids are in college. “They are out of town,” he says. “But they love me, you know.”

The volunteer asked the couple if they wanted to go to a shelter.

“This is my lady right here,” the man said, “we’ve been together 12 years. And we do it together.” He said he worries they would be separated by gender in a shelter.

We left Lower Wacker and drove slowly along the streets, still looking. We found a shack constructed next to the highway, and inside we heard people fighting. The volunteers called out the questions, but the people inside screamed at us to go away.

The count is not perfect, as people can be missed. But coordinators say it is a useful tool. Last year, this count found 6,276 people who were homeless. That is down from the previous survey in 2011. The city said because of economic conditions the expect an overall rise in people without stable housing. But chronic homelessness-- people who stay out in the streets, sometimes for years-- those numbers are down.

Coordinators said the cold can be good for the survey, because people are more likely to go to a shelter, where they are easier to count. The temperature hovered around zero and earlier in the night, there was a report of a man found frozen to death in Logan Square. Back in the car, some volunteers wondered why people aren’t going to shelters.

“I know that there is Catholic Charities, there’s other relief services, there’s Heartland - there are other people,” one volunteer said. “That’s why it’s hard for me to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

An advocate explained that people consider their space on the street a home. One volunteer mentioned a couple she met earlier: “She had a dustpan and a broom. And she was sweeping the debris to keep the rats away, keep the area clean. And I remember him saying, ‘yeah, she does this because this one of the few places that we’re able to stay. And we don’t want to create a situation where they would make us leave.’”

Around 2 am we headed back. The job was done. But after hours of scanning the streets, it is hard to stop. Our eyes became use to staring down the alley, looking beneath underpasses-- trying to make sure we see who is there.

Taking a moment to notice, to take count.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ web producer. Follow her @shannon_h

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