May 17, 2005

Activists tackle the issue of homelessness at panel event

Ed Shurna and Anne Holcomb of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) and the Hyde Park Transitional Housing Project (HPTHP), respectively, spoke to students and community members about the micro and the macro causes of homelessness last Thursday evening. The event, "In Transit: Paths out of Homelessness," was sponsored by the Giving Tree, and took place at Ida Noyes Hall.

Holcomb began her talk by asking the audience about the causes of homelessness, receiving replies such as addiction, lack of a living wage, disability, and gentrification. Holcomb said that the HPTHP "advocates for the right for housing"—Article 25 on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The HPTHP, which is run by volunteers and seeks to help homeless families find housing on a two-year basis, has placed two families in Hyde Park apartments.

Though Holcomb said the issue of homelessness has become increasingly politicized, she has developed her own hypothesis for why homelessness occurs. Her "Four Causal Stratum" consists of the systemic conditions that promote homelessness on a large scale, such as lack of affordable housing, racism, sexism, gentrification, and a high unemployment rate. Additionally, her hypothesis names micro factors, which do not cause homelessness alone but may increase an individual's vulnerability to it. These factors include "family legacy," which consists of reasons like family tragedy and abuse that deplete a family's and an individual's access to resources, as well as "individual pathologies" such as mental illness, disabilities, and addiction. She then highlighted the "triggering event," such as a fire or episode of domestic violence, which may force people into homelessness.

Shurna, executive director of the CCH, spoke next. He said that the lack of affordable housing, living-wage jobs, social services, and affordable health care are the major systemic causes of homelessness. He named poverty as the "biggest common denominator" in homelessness.

Homelessness emerged as an important issue during the 1980s when there was a simultaneous decrease in well-paying jobs and affordable housing, according to Shurna. Manufacturing jobs that paid enough for people to afford housing and education were replaced by low-paying service jobs in Chicago.

"In addition to that, the housing costs just started to skyrocket. In the South loop where our office is […] there used to be 25,000 SROs [single-room occupancies] in 1968," said Shurna. "Those all got knocked down, and were replaced by lofts and condos."

With lower incomes, it became increasingly difficult for people to afford housing, Shurna said. The CCH then started to advocate for emergency shelters and more affordable housing options.

According to Shurna, the CCH is currently lobbying for a law to help subsidize rent. "Over 40 percent of people staying in shelters are working," he said. The law, modeled on the Low Income Housing Trust Fund, which currently has 2,000 units in Chicago, would help subsidize 5,500 rental units across the state, including 1,700 in Chicago.

Shurna stressed that homelessness particularly affects children. Nine-thousand homeless children are enrolled in the Chicago public schools, and 12 is the average age of a homeless person in the U.S. Among the many projects of CCH is the defense of the right of children to stay enrolled in the school they were in before they became homeless. Though this is the law in Chicago, some suburban districts, according to Shurna, are trying to get the law changed so that the relatives with whom the children are staying must become their legal guardians.

On any given night there are 15,000 homeless people in Chicago and only 6,000 beds for them, Shurna said. The problem is "exacerbated by the demolition of public housing," into which only 10 percent of people are able to move back.

"Homelessness and housing difficulties are indicators of how well a city is functioning," said Cynthia Warner, the coordinator of the event. "People living in the city of Chicago—like U of C students—will have an incomplete understanding of it as long as these issues do not come into their conceptions of the city," Warner said.

"It is very easy to not see homelessness, or only see the figure of a panhandler on 57th Street, instead of the complex reality of 100,000 plus people living their lives without homes in Chicago every year."