‘The CTA is their last resort’: A night out with the people helping homeless riders
Outreach workers say fewer shelter beds and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent crackdown on people sleeping at O’Hare has forced more unhoused people onto trains and buses.By Anna Savchenko
On a recent Thursday, all Malcolm Reed could think about was how to get his hands on a warm coat and a new pair of shoes.
He lost most of his belongings when he was forced out of O’Hare International Airport by Chicago police in mid-February along with dozens of other unhoused people. The airport had been a refuge on winter nights until national reports showed how many people were sleeping there — and the city cracked down.
That evening Reed, 52, took a Blue Line train to the Forest Park station just west of Chicago, hoping to get lucky at an outreach event run by the Night Ministry — a nonprofit that sets up meals and medical stations twice a week at train stations to help the homeless.
More than 100 people were already there when he arrived, queuing for a hot meal and harm reduction kits.
By the time Reed reached the front of the line, the outreach team was already out of clothes for the night. Still, they offered him some Narcan, an opioid overdose-reversing drug, which he stuffed in the pocket of his thin black windbreaker.
The CTA pledged earlier this year to expand partnerships with social service agencies, frankly acknowledging in its “Meeting the Moment” improvement plan that people who are homeless or struggling with mental health issues were impacting riders. The Night Ministry is one of three nonprofits the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) said will benefit from such an expansion.
Previously, the city spent at least $400,000 annually on outreach at major public transit hubs, said a spokesperson for DFSS, which oversees services for homeless residents in the city and funds several community shelters. This year, the agency will spend $2 million more on expanded outreach on the Blue and Red lines alone in response to growing concerns about people sleeping there.
But despite resources, some outreach workers and housing advocates say there is more need. And a shortage of shelter beds across the city is pushing more people to sleep on trains, they say, because “the CTA is their last resort.”
“The sad part about the CTA is that it doesn’t have any facilities,” said Doris Rosanova, an outreach worker with the Night Ministry. “So it just gets awfully disgusting.”
Keeping them “safe and fed”
What outreach workers say on this cold night in February at Forest Park underscores the vastness of the city’s homeless crisis: When there are fewer shelter beds and O’Hare is no longer an option, more people end up sleeping on trains.
Many shelters were forced to limit bed space to meet health and safety protocols during the pandemic, which contributed to an increase in street homelessness.
But although the pandemic has subsided, the shelter system never recovered.
There are about 3,000 available shelter beds in the city, according to DFSS. But the system that manages the shelters counted 11,683 active clients — or unhoused people already in the system — as of early March. And as of this week, another 4,414 Chicagoans were waitlisted for housing support services.
“The shelter beds available are just a fraction of what we actually need,” said Niya Kelly, the director of state legislative policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Twice a week, Rosanova helps her team set up shop at the Howard and Forest Park stations.
Tonight, the 72-year-old retired hospice nurse is manning the food station in a lavender-colored puffer and ski pants, her cropped gray hair peeking from underneath her beanie.
She places sandwiches, fistfuls of candy, socks and hand warmers into brown bags before handing them off to what she calls her “clients.” If she sees someone without gloves, she hands them a pair as well.
“I have the feeling that they ask all day long,” Rosanova said. “So I usually don’t ask what you need. I just give.”
Beside Rosanova sits a young person who gives out medical supplies ranging from clean needles to tourniquets and alcohol pads — anything for clean drug use. Across the room is another makeshift station marked by a plastic partition, where a medical team with Loyola University Chicago treats patients for wounds, parasites and substance abuse.
These services are a lifeline for those experiencing homelessness, Rosanova said.
“There will be a time for them to recover,” she said. “And we just need to keep them safe and fed … give them the most necessary things until that happens.”
The Night Ministry is not the only group trying to help unhoused CTA riders. Thresholds, a mental health treatment provider, placed a permanent team of outreach workers on the Red Line this January. They ride the train on weekday evenings after rush hour and assist those in need of mental health treatment or housing services.
The Haymarket Center, which offers substance use treatment and mental health programming, started a similar program on the Blue Line just last week. The outreach workers ride the trains and walk through platforms trying to develop relationships with clients to identify their needs, a Haymarket official said.
“A fraction of what we actually need”
Rosanova saw almost 150 clients that night.
Among them was 29-year-old Jay Snook, wearing a thin white T-shirt. The father of three said he has been sleeping on the “L” or at CTA train stations since he was relocated from O’Hare. That came after Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed to do everything she can to remove unhoused people from O’Hare, including new security checks that require CTA customers who arrive at the airport to show a boarding pass or work badge between midnight and 4 a.m., according to Block Club Chicago.
Snook decided to hang around to talk to the case manager on duty about getting on a shelter bed waitlist, though he knew his prospects were slim.
“As far as beds go, there’s just no availability,” said Stephannie Schreiber, the Night Ministry case manager. “We call 311 to try and find them shelter. But personally, I have never successfully been able to get someone a bed.”
When asked what it is doing to address a more systemic issue, a DFSS spokesperson said that as of 2023, the department is allocating an additional $3.7 million annually to increase shelter funding. The spokesperson did not disclose exactly where that money is going.
Kelly, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s efforts to expand outreach on the Red and Blue lines as well as scaling up partnerships with agencies like the Night Ministry are helping. But more funding is needed to meet demand.
“We do have to find a way to build upon our emergency services so that when we have those really frigid nights, they’re not sitting in emergency rooms or in police stations because there’s not a bed available in the city,” Kelly said.
In the meantime, riders like Malcolm Reed shelter on the CTA as “sleeping anywhere else can get you arrested.”
As night fell and the temperature dropped, Reed took the escalator back upstairs and stepped onto a waiting Blue Line train, where a couple people had already taken refuge — some slouched in their seats, others digging into dinner.
Reed said he had been robbed on the train several times while sleeping. So instead of sleeping, he just tries to stay awake.
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow @annasavchenkoo.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, WBEZ misidentified the gender of a person. The story has since been updated.