Public safety concerns around homelessness in Chicago as crisis grows

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones, Maggie Green and Adriana Aguilar WLS logo
Friday, February 16, 2024
Public safety concerns around Chicago's homelessness crisis
Homelessness in Chicago is a growing problem, with the city's unhoused population swelling to an estimated 68,000. How is the crisis being addressed?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A growing number of people are living in Chicago without stable housing. An estimated 68,000 Chicagoans are experiencing homelessness according to a new report. That's equal the population of Skokie.

The ABC7 I-Team's six month investigation reveals big shifts in where the homeless are staying, with thousands more living in shelters or on the street.

"It's everywhere. It's in everybody's community," said Brian Rodgers, a grass-roots leader at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

When Rodgers meets people experiencing homelessness, he tells them he was once in their shoes. Incarcerated twice, he struggled with housing when he got out of prison.

The crisis is painfully visible.

"I've seen more bodies removed here than at any point in my life," said West Loop resident Conrad Fuhrman.

The I-Team has been monitoring some West Loop encampments since last summer. Residents have also been sharing photos and videos with us.

A six-month investigation by the ABC7 I-Team reveals big shifts in where the homeless are staying, with thousands more living in shelters or on the street.

"We're talking about the viaducts at Fulton Street, Milwaukee Avenue and Lake Street between Clinton and Canal," 34th Ward Ald. Bill Conway told the I-Team. "When I first took office, this was a largely peaceful homeless encampment and then over time, it became just a magnet for drugs and crime. We had a few armed robberies. We had three shootings, one of them fatal."

Kat Fay was attacked twice as she tried to pass tents in her wheelchair while on her way home, one of many reasons she recently moved.

"We were engaged by someone that was completely out of his mind on drugs and tried to get in our way. He lurched after me tried to grab me by the arm," said Fay.

Numerous agencies are working to help those living here. Ten people recently accepted shelter from the city.

"We want to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring," said Brandie Knazze, Chicago Dept. of Family & Support Services Commissioner.

In 2023, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that homelessness across America hit its highest point in 16 years.

But accurately counting this population is complicated.

"Homelessness has been a part of Chicago for a long time," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, (D-7th District).

This recent report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates more than 68,000 are without stable housing here, an increase of 4.5% from the year before.

The city's official homelessness count only includes people living in shelters or on the streets.

"I'm focused on ensuring that families have every single opportunity...that they get to live with some dignity," said Mayor Brandon Johnson.

An I-Team data analysis reveals on one night in January 2023 there were more beds available at homeless shelters than people counted as experiencing homelessness. That "Point in Time" count is mandated by the federal government every year in order to get funding. Many experts acknowledge the count is just a snapshot.

"We have a housing first approach, and that's always our North star," said Commissioner Knazze.

City data shows from 2020-2022, Chicago found housing for close to 1,900 households experiencing homelessness.

But some say the Johnson administration isn't doing enough.

"The mayor is tasked with the job to deal with this situation to help these people. And to help us. They've fallen way short," said Dave Gelfand, Clinton Street Lofts Property Manager.

"How do you generate the revenue that you need in order to meet some of these needs that continue to exist?" said U.S. Rep. Davis.

The Bring Chicago Home initiative aims to do just that. If passed next month by voters, the Real Estate Transfer Tax would be raised for high-end properties to create an affordable housing fund for the homeless.

"This is how we figure that we can start to chip away at the problem," said Rodgers.

The budget for homeless services in Chicago is $77 million. City officials tell us they have not diverted any of this funding to support new migrant arrivals. In October, Mayor Johnson announced the City will hire a Chief Homelessness Officer. The position has yet to be filled.