The phone in LaShunda Brown’s office rings off the hook most days.
Brown, the director of the Primo Center for Women and Children in Englewood, spends much of her shift fielding calls from people seeking shelter in a moment of crisis.
On a recent Monday, the first call of the day was from a young mother, her voice quivering on the other end of the line. She asked if Primo had a bed available for her and her 3-year-old son. Brown jotted down the mother’s information and promised to call her back.
After she set down the phone, Brown sighed and took a beat to collect herself. Such requests set in motion a system the city of Chicago designed to connect unhoused people with shelter. But Brown knew the odds of the system working for that mother were slim.
That’s because the number of shelter requests the city receives through its 311 hotline has more than doubled since before the pandemic — a spike that has been driven by what housing advocates say is a rise in street homelessness amid the aftershocks of COVID and a swelling migrant crisis. And while demand is up, the supply of available beds dropped during the pandemic, and city officials acknowledge those numbers have yet to rebound.
Data analysis by WBEZ also shows a declining percentage of calls appear to result in a placement. But it’s hard to measure how well the system is working because of several major flaws in the 311 data system the city uses to track shelter requests.
“The demand for resources, be it through 311 to get people into a shelter or any other piece of the shelter system, is so much greater than what the system can handle,” said Douglas Schenkelberg, the director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
The city’s Department of Family and Support Services manages the shelter system. Kimberly Howard, director of homeless prevention for the agency, acknowledged the strain the twin crises are placing on the 311 hotline. “It’s definitely been a lift,” Howard said, adding that DFSS is working with its delegate agencies “to evaluate what changes need to be made.”
In the meantime, as a new mayor grapples with a steady surge of asylum-seekers and alderpeople fiercely debate the issue, Chicago has no clear picture of who has a bed for the night and who doesn’t.
How is the 311 shelter system supposed to work?
The city’s 311 hotline is a nonemergency service residents use to report anything from street potholes to rats.
It’s also the front door for shelter requests that are fielded through a public-private partnership between the city and the Salvation Army, a social service agency. When someone calls the hotline and asks for help finding a bed, they’re connected with a city employee who asks several routine intake questions. Where are you located? Do you have transportation? Can you walk unassisted?
The city employee then informs the caller it may take up to 48 hours for someone to follow up on their shelter request. The caller receives an automated text with a service request number.
If all goes smoothly after the initial call, an agent with the Salvation Army matches the client with an available shelter bed. Then, the agent will call the client back and coordinate transportation. The Salvation Army’s crisis response team sends out a van to pick the client up and take them to a shelter. Most shelters that receive city funding are mandated to use this centralized system, with some exceptions for centers working with young people under 24.
But sometimes people call and ask for shelter several times before they hear back from an agent. Other times, the calls come from unhoused people who don’t have cell phones and who are calling the hotline from public phones in hospitals, police stations and warming centers. If they leave those places, it can be impossible to reach them.
“Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Brown, who works with the 311 response team on a daily basis. “Sometimes folks call and say, ‘I’ve been here at the police station for three days and I’m just waiting on the call back from 311 to say they have a placement ready.’ Sometimes, folks place a call and within an hour a van will be outside bringing the family into our facility.’ ”
Michelle Feliciano, 34, was couchsurfing with her 1-year-old son Ernest last fall when the friend she was staying with asked her to pack her things and leave. Feliciano was pregnant with her second child at the time and knew she couldn’t go back to the streets.
After she placed a 311 call from her friend’s phone, Feliciano received the automated text. Then she waited for several days in silence.
She placed another request. This time, an agent called her back two days later.
“They asked me where I was,” Feliciano recalls. “I said, I was staying with a friend but that she was pushing me out. Like she’s putting me out right now. They told me to wait. And I’m like, OK, but I’m pregnant, can you help me faster?”
What’s happening in reality?
Data obtained via public records requests show a system that is overburdened, under-resourced and unreliable.
From 2019 to 2022, the volume of 311 calls more than doubled, a WBEZ analysis of 311 records shows.
And call volume this year is already on track to be higher than last year. More than 17,000 calls were placed between Jan. 1 and April 14 of this year — roughly 3,000 more calls than the same period in 2022.
People seeking immediate shelter call 311 for a slew of reasons, but shelter managers and housing advocates say pandemic job loss, the end of the statewide eviction moratorium and the recent influx of asylum-seekers arriving in Chicago have all contributed to the surge in shelter requests.
“A lot of the families I see coming in are victims of the pandemic,” Brown said. “They lost their job. They were receiving unemployment. But it wasn’t enough for them to sustain their household.”
Yet funding for the shelter system has remained relatively flat over the past four years. That changed with a $6.1 million bump in 2023 to a total of $26.8 million in spending for the year, according to DFSS.
City records also show shelter requests are taking longer to close.
According to WBEZ’s analysis, the average wait time from when a request is logged to when it’s closed soared from less than 10 hours in 2020 to more than 50 hours in the first few months of 2023.
Wait time is an important indicator because if the city can’t find someone a bed within 72 hours, the request expires and the callers lose their place in the queue, according to DFSS.
But what the data doesn’t consistently show is how many calls actually result in a shelter placement. Call records suggest that the percentage of placements has declined significantly in the past four years, but flaws in the way DFSS collects its data indicate the department doesn’t know exactly how many people are successfully placed — or where. (To read more about the issues with the 311 shelter data, click here.)
When asked what happens to the thousands of shelter requests the city doesn’t have any official record of, Howard of DFSS said the agency holds monthly meetings with the Salvation Army “to better understand, collect and use data on shelter requests and placements.”
Schenkelberg, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said these structural data issues complicate DFSS’s ability to assess the effectiveness of the system that the city is asking shelter providers to use.
“We know that the system, even if it was running perfectly, doesn’t meet demand,” Schenkelberg said. “But it’s hard to talk about that when you have bad data.”
In Feliciano’s case, several days lapsed before the Salvation Army’s mobile crisis team picked up the mother and her son from her friend’s place. The pair wound up at the Primo Center in Englewood.
Looking back at her experience, Feliciano wishes she got a call back from 311 sooner. She also wishes the system, which handles requests in the order they come in, prioritized placement for families.
How is the migrant crisis impacting the shelter system?
Call volumes began rising around the time the pandemic began in 2020 — well before the first bus of asylum-seekers arrived in Chicago last year, 311 call records show.
But a spike in calls starting in the fall of 2022 shows the city’s migrant crisis has further added to the demand for beds. With large numbers of people arriving daily, community organizations helping migrants are turning more frequently to the 311 hotline to arrange shelter for the asylum-seekers, many of whom don’t have working cell service in the United States.
“The direction the city has given us is to make sure everybody goes through 311,” said Laura Mendoza, an immigration organizer for The Resurrection Project.
But there aren’t enough beds for either the asylum-seekers or Chicago’s unhoused population.
The city’s shelter system operates roughly 3,000 beds. An additional 4,100 beds have been set up for migrants, according to a DFSS spokesperson, but that’s not enough given estimates that put the number of arrivals so far at around 10,000.
That has created a spillover effect, shelter directors say, with migrant families now being assigned to beds that were previously set aside for unhoused Chicagoans. For example, several migrant families currently reside at Primo, Brown said.
Though the city has faced a shelter bed shortage for years, Schenkelberg said new waves of asylum-seekers have exacerbated a chronic problem.
“The new arrivals that are coming in, they’re experiencing homelessness just like other folks experiencing traditional homelessness are,” Schenkelberg said. “And the fact that we have a system that wasn’t working before we had a growth in new arrivals coming into the city makes it easy to see that this was not going to work well.”
Advocates who are helping migrants, like The Resurrection Project’s Mendoza, say it’s frustrating to call 311 and not know how long it will take to find housing. When families aren’t matched with a shelter, they have nowhere but a police station or emergency room to go.
“People are in shock when they hear that, ‘No, we don’t just have housing to give you’ and yes, ‘you might have to go into the police station,’ ” Mendoza said. “That’s a really tough conversation to have, honestly, because a lot of people hear [that it’s a] police station and they immediately feel in danger.”
What’s being done to help?
All this adds up to a steep challenge for Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, who wants to boost social services citywide but has to find the money.
In his mid-May inauguration speech, the former organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union promised to “Bring Chicago Home,” alluding to his support for an increased real estate transfer tax that would be used to fund homelessness prevention.
“We can create a prosperous city, which no one is too poor to live in,” Johnson said, adding that he envisioned a Chicago where people don’t wake up in the streets or in a shelter.
Shortly after that speech, Johnson’s administration floated a plan to open a welcoming center at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, where more than 300 migrants are already staying.
And on Wednesday, City Council approved using $51 million in surplus funding to pay for shelter staffing and other resources for incoming migrants. But city officials warn that the money will only be enough to last through the end of June.
Howard, of DFSS, said the city is working to overhaul its shelter system. She said the agency plans to purchase hotels and motels and repurpose them into new shelter facilities, though the initiative is in its early stages.
More federal help is on the horizon, too. Chicago is set to receive two years of “tailored support” from the Biden administration to help get more unsheltered residents into permanent housing. This help includes embedding a federal official in the area.
But when it comes to the 311 hotline, shelter officials and housing advocates alike say Chicago’s plan to tackle the two converging crises — homelessness and the surge in asylum-seekers — requires better data and local oversight.
Schenkelberg thinks Chicago should develop a long-term strategy to help both asylum-seekers arriving on the city’s doorstep and residents already on the streets. Otherwise, he said, the city “pits these two populations against each other.”
“We should focus on a single system,” Schenkelberg said, “that serves anyone who’s unhoused in the city of Chicago.”
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @annasavchenkoo.
Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @amyqin12.