Why Chicago Couldn't End Homelessness

In 2003, Richard Daley promised to house every resident by 2012. Nine years later, the city's nowhere near meeting that goal

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Flickr/Ed Yourdon

Vancouver's pledge to end homelessness by 2015 sounded all too familiar to Julie Dworkin.

Dworkin was there in 2003, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley launched his own ambitious anti-homeless agenda. The goal -- get every Chicago resident housed by 2012. Critics dismissed it as political posturing, yet another bit of flash to woo the 2016 Olympic location selection committee.

But Dworkin and her team at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless didn't see it that way. They worked closely with Daley's team to develop a strategy that emphasized permanent housing and a coordinated city services.

Did it work? Not exactly.

Admittedly, the city made some tactical errors. In an effort to move away from temporary housing, it mandated that the homeless leave shelters after 120 days. In some places, homeless men and women used to stay up to two years. The goal was to effectively shut down the "Band aid" solutions like temporary housing. But it forced the city to move more quickly than it was equipped to move to find permanent homes.

And there were squabbles over how much new housing should be set aside as affordable. The mayor's office wanted builders to preserve 10 percent for families earning less than $75,000 a year. The city council demanded more housing and a lower income standard. 

But these missteps obscure the bigger challenges with bold pronouncements. Mostly, the problems came down to a lack of money and a question of will.

On Wednesday, Dworkin headed to Illinois' capital to lobby against funding cuts for the poor. Homelessness programs are looking at a 50 percent cut. Even the most successful programs, like a voucher system that subsidizes rents for low-income families, are on the chopping block. Dworkin says the program budget has shrunk by almost 90 percent in the last 5 years.

When there are hundreds of programs competing for budgetary attention, how can groups like Dworkin's force politicians to keep their promise? The sad truth is, especially in times of major financial crisis, they can't.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourton.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.