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An encampment for unhoused individuals at North Clinton Street and North Milwaukee Avenue in the West Loop is seen in this photo, Sunday Dec. 17, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

An encampment for unhoused individuals at North Clinton Street and North Milwaukee Avenue in the West Loop is seen in this photo, Sunday Dec. 17, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago’s homeless population increased threefold, a city snapshot shows, owing largely to migrants

The city’s annual point-in-time count showed nearly 19,000 people were unhoused on a single night in January.

More than 18,800 Chicagoans experienced homelessness on a single night in January — a threefold increase over last year that was largely driven by 13,900 asylum-seekers who had no permanent place to stay.

The estimates released Friday come from the city’s annual snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night. This year’s point-in-time count was conducted on Jan. 25 — shortly after the city saw its peak of the number of migrants it sheltered. During the count, 13,679 asylum-seekers were living in shelters, with 212 unsheltered.

Outside of the population of asylum-seekers, the number of people who were in city shelters or staying on the street saw an uptick to 4,945 — a 25% increase from the 3,943 “non-new arrivals” who were sheltered and unsheltered last year.

Of that demographic, Black Chicagoans experienced higher rates of homelessness, with 72% identifying as Black, compared to Black residents making up roughly a third of the city’s population.

Overall, 18,836 people were experiencing homelessness compared to 6,139 during last year’s count. Around 30% were children under 18.

The figures underscore why the city has tried to build capacity to resettle the more than 43,000 migrants that have arrived to Chicago while also working on strategies to end homelessness, said Maura McCauley, managing deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.

“Those things have been happening together,” McCauley said. “One didn’t stop in order to serve another population.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which mandates the counts, defines a person experiencing homelessness as someone who “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The counts capture a static picture, but it’s among the ways to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness. When accounting for those living “doubled up” temporarily with others, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated there were 68,440 people unhoused in Chicago in 2021, for example, compared to just 4,477 reported during that year’s point-in-time count.

While the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers propelled the city’s homeless population upward, Doug Schenkelberg, the executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the increase of roughly 1,000 longtime residents experiencing homelessness is notable.

“That major bump that’s attributed to asylum seekers can hide what is a significant percentage increase In folks who aren’t asylum seekers,” Schenkelberg said. “It points to insufficient resources to serve those experiencing homelessness in Chicago. It isn’t a surprise, unfortunately.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night had been gradually on the decline, but saw an uptick in 2020, followed by decreases over the next two years, according to the city’s point-in-time counts. It rose last year, and this year’s even larger spike comes as more pandemic relief aid runs out, McCauley said.

“We really think that’s because pandemic era supports, like SNAP benefits and stimulus resources from the state and federal government, came to an end, between 2022 and 2023. And the Chicago housing market has become less and less affordable,” McCauley said.

“We were anticipating this increase, but we also at the same time increased our shelter capacity more than five times. And if we hadn’t done that, we really think that we would have seen a really unprecedented and tragic increase in our unsheltered population.”

In January at the time of the count, the city had 9,165 beds for permanent supportive housing, or a 10% increase over last year; 2,979 beds for rapid rehousing, a 42% increase; and 304 beds for other permanent housing, 2% decrease, according to a city report. Those figures don’t encompass the city’s shelters for asylum-seekers. McCauley said the dramatic increases in capacity were spurred by tens of millions in increased city and federal funds.

In the last year, the city has also expanded its “accelerated moving events” that quickly connect people to housing, a program that earned praise from the city’s watchdog in a recent audit, and the Chicago Transit Authority invested $2 million in homeless outreach on the Blue and Red lines.

But there was also an 18% reduction from 2023 to 2022 in the number of people exiting to permanent housing, with the average person experiencing homelessness for 843 days — a 38-day increase — from 2022. The city’s annual report updating its progress addressing homelessness cited “staffing shortages that limit new participants inflow into such housing programs,” as one reason why.

The spike in the number of people experiencing homelessness underscores the need for more federal resources to move the needle, McCauley said.

“One really positive thing that came out of the pandemic and all of the recovery funding is that we have demonstrated that when there is an infusion of resources, we have the tools through collaborative approaches, coordinated work and a focus on housing that we can end homelessness,” McCauley said. “So the solutions are there.”

This March, Chicago voters rejected a proposal backed by Mayor Brandon Johnson that would have increased a tax on the sale of high-end properties to raise funds dedicated to combating homelessness. An estimated $100 million in revenue was expected to be generated annually, and the measure would have followed in the footsteps of cities like Los Angeles. But the real estate industry fiercely opposed the plan, and it was ultimately defeated.

The sharp increase in Chicago’s unhoused population “definitely lends credence to the need for a solution like Bring Chicago Home — something that is at scale, that is permanent, that is long term,” Schenkelberg said, who added a review of the coalition’s strategy to find a revenue source, and whether it will take the shape of another ballot campaign, is still underway. “But we’re definitely not walking away from the fight.”

In the wake of the defeat, the Johnson administration has moved forward with other proposals to try to increase the city’s affordable housing supply, including a $1.25 billion dollar bond plan that relies on the expiration of controversial tax increment financing districts and a plan to repurpose downtown office buildings into residential units. The administration also named its first Chief Homelessness Officer, a new position Johnson created.

The city also has plans in the works to create a unified shelter system that would serve everyone experiencing homelessness — rather than serving asylum-seekers and longtime residents through separate shelter systems. The system isn’t expected to launch until 2025 at the earliest, according to the report, and it remains to be seen if it will reach the scale the city achieved through its migrant shelter system.

“We absolutely have the funding streams to be able to provide the capacity that is needed,” said Beatriz Ponce De León, Johnson’s deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights. “And certainly as we look at merging the systems or creating something that’s new, we are taking into account the diversity of people that are entering the system. We do have new patterns of migration.”

After hundreds of migrants were sleeping on the floors of police station lobbies and airports, the city quickly stood up shelters, which was met with fierce pushback in some neighborhoods who called for equal investment in turn. The city tapped former warehouses, park district field houses and downtown hotels as spaces. But some shelters were crowded and had unsanitary conditions, including a measles outbreak. At its peak, there were 28 migrant shelters operating.

The city has begun to wind down its shelters serving migrants as the number of asylum-seekers arriving to the city has sharply declined. It also began enforcing a 60-day limit on shelter stays, with exceptions for families, that alderpersons and advocates worried would exacerbate the number of people living on the streets.

More than 900 people have been forced to leave shelter under the policy, with people returning in need of shelter at a rate of about 55%, Ponce De León said.

“No one wants to live in a shelter for a really long time. So as they become a little bit more settled, connected to others or start to work, some are choosing to leave on their own and have figured out places to live and where to go,” Ponce De León said. “So we haven’t seen any of the alarmist consequences that people thought were going to happen.”

Schenkelberg said he hopes the city will try to keep the best elements of both shelter systems when combining them, and let go of others that “aren’t so great.” But he stressed permanent housing is the ultimate need.

“We’d love to see the 60-day eviction policy eliminated. That doesn’t exist in the traditional homeless system and it exists in the asylum seeker system. We don’t think that should be part of a shelter system, particularly when you don’t have the permanent housing that people need to get beyond the shelter,” Schenkelberg said. “The more time and energy and funding we put into long-term solutions, the fewer people have to stay in the shelter to begin with.”

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ.

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