“Do or Die Desperation”: Solving homelessness in Chicago

Laura’s story
On a cold Chicago night we sat down with 51 year-old “Princess Laura” (real name Laura Schwartz) and spoke to her about her current living situation. What made this scenario atypical was the fact that we were sitting under the Wilson viaducts in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Laura is one of the thousands of homeless who inhabit Chicago. Laura informed us that she and her family decided to come to Uptown for its relative safety and homeless-friendly residents. We sat down with her next to a tarp-covered tent, which Laura and her husband call home. She provided us with a brief overview of their circumstances that, realistically, could happen to any one of us.

Through talking to Laura we were enlightened to the true daily plight of Chicago’s poor. Laura only makes about $700 a month from her disability check, and having too much pride to panhandle, she relies mostly on the kindness of strangers to subsist. Besides money and food, Laura says the homeless residents are in desperate need of blankets as they prepare for the winter.

Throughout our conversation Laura wanted to make it clear that the stereotypes of the homeless as alcohol and drug dependent are a far cry from the reality. Many of those living in the streets, Laura says, are people who are dealing with mental health problems and other physical ailments.

During our interview as we saw many local citizens drop off food and other supplies. Individuals from the Night Ministry also made their nightly rounds and provided food and medical assistance for those living on the streets. These deliveries are doled out communally amongst those living in the viaduct, relying on a sort of honor system. Laura relies on the donations in order to eat and stay warm, as do many of those living beside her.

Unfortunately they are not alone.

Chicago’s homelessness problem

According to a 2015 study by the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, there are approximately 6,800 homeless individuals in the city. Although the majority live in shelters, it is all of our responsibility to assist the more than 2,000 people who continue to have to roof over their head. The hard part is finding solutions that are backed by performance-based outcome measures. We would like to propose alternatives that can be tracked and reworked if the desired results are not reached.

First, as proposed by the 2.0 Plan to End Homelessness, we would create an umbrella organization to oversee the delivery of all social services provided to homeless individuals. This would prevent duplication of services in some areas and identify gaps in others. In layman terms a homelessness czar, if you will.

Another 2.0 Plan solution would empower the homelessness czar to establish “good neighborhood” agreements within each community. Currently social services providers assist in managing conflicts between neighbors and the populations they serve, to mixed results. The agreements would be managed through the alderman’s ward office and would serve as a method to address conflicts as they arise. These agreements would give the newly created agency a mandate to bring neighbors together to work through issues. Further it would act as a buffer between the two constituencies.

Lastly, the czar would work with private entities to grow partnerships that would benefit the residents of the city and the company. This has successfully been implemented between the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (LADHS) and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Over two years LADHS, along with the LA County Board of Supervisors, contributed $28 million and the Hilton Foundation contributed $4 million to provide housing subsidies for at least 2,400 people.

Another aspect of a public-private partnership would be to combine the efficiencies of the private sector with the resources of the public sector. The private industry would be able to assist the czar in implementing performance-based outcome measures. One specific example is the quality of care in shelters. The public sector would be responsible in acquiring and distributing resources, where the private sector would be responsible in determining and evaluating metrics.

Our next steps

Our communal responsibility is not only to see that these ideas are put into practice, but also to hold our elected officials accountable if they are not. This includes keeping these programs funded and making sure they run efficiently. At this point the situation has reached a breaking point, not only for the homeless but for the city as a whole – something must be done. As Laura told us, for those on the streets this is “do or die desperation!”


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