Homelessness 'point in time' count shows pandemic progress, major changes to some shelter systems

ByMark Rivera and Maggie Green WLS logo
Saturday, January 28, 2023
Annual homelessness count shows major changes to some shelter systems
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago and the suburbs has decreased during the pandemic, but the shelter system has seen major changes.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Point in Time counts of homeless populations took place in Chicago and suburban counties this week. They provide a snapshot of how many people are experiencing homelessness on any given night in the city and suburbs.

Many experts say it's an undercount, not showing the true overall picture of homelessness. Still, it's a vital step needed to allocate millions of dollars to programs and housing to help our most vulnerable populations.

Steve Lukowych and Erik Nelson are searching.

"It can be a delicate situation sometimes because you never know who you're going to run into or what their personality is," Nelson said.

They said they've already found three people experiencing homelessness on a frigid, damp and dreary January night in Arlington Heights.

"My ultimate goal is trying to house them," Nelson said.

It's all part of the annual point in time count of unsheltered people in suburban Cook County.

"You gotta let them know that there is a way out," Lukowych said.

People just like Lukowych, who said he was without a stable home and living out of his car for two years after losing his job and going through a divorce.

"I just couldn't make ends meet. Next thing you know I'm getting kicked out of the apartment that I got 'cause I couldn't pay the rent," he said.

Night after night, the fear, frustration and anxiety built.

"It was just downhill after that," he said. "Mentally that hurts. I mean it really hurts you."

He said he was in mental and physical anguish until he was connected with suburban housing advocates and the team at Northwest Compass, who have connected him with housing, food, healthcare and more.

Now he's giving back, using his lived experience to try to help his friends still out on the streets.

"There's lots of resources here that will help you get all sorts of things you didn't think were possible," Lukowych said.

About 30 miles away and a day later in Chicago, there was a similar effort to connect in the bitter cold with a community in need.

"These are real people. We don't know all of their stories, but I just met a young man who's been out on the streets for two years. Sleeping on concrete and he shares the bed over here with pigeons," said Carolyn Ross, president and CEO of All Chicago.

The organization coordinates homeless resources and responses in the city.

"It's heartbreaking, but we need to be out here. We need to hear their stories. We need to hear their stories and hear what they need," she said.

About 200 staff and volunteers gathered for the survey. Outreach teams scoured the city to count and meet those in need.

According to the ABC 7 Data Team, Chicago's point in time count from 2020 to 2022, the count of people experiencing homelessness in the city, dropped 28% percent from 5,390 to 3,875.

Statewide, that count dropped 12% from 10,431 to 9,212 people experiencing homelessness.

But there's troubling news as well. While overall point in time counts indicate a drop, the percentage of people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered - living outside - increased. In Chicago, the percentage of unsheltered people counted from 2020 to 2022 rose from 28% to 33%. Statewide, the percentage remained nearly the same, despite fewer people counted, decreasing slightly from 22% to 21%.

"We got a lot of people off the street and into the shelters, but as you can see we still didn't reach everybody," Ross said.

"Before the pandemic about 70% of our shelter was reliant on faith-based partners taking rotating nights of the week to offer overnight shelter," said Katie Eighan, Continuum of Care Planning Director for suburban Cook County.

Eighan said the pandemic upended the shelter system.

"When the pandemic happened we lost that, and again, that was about 70 percent of how we provided emergency shelter," she said.

Leeann Austin felt that first hand.

"Mentally, you're lucky if you're still a normal person at the end of the night because mentally it breaks you down as a person," Austin said.

She said when she was without a home during the pandemic, finding shelter was nearly impossible.

"I went from hospital to hospital, from shelter to shelter, or there were no shelters and the best you could do was go to a hotel lobby," she said.

But since the pandemic started, tens of millions of federal, state and local dollars have been invested in the city and suburbs to support new initiatives to add more shelter space, services and non-congregate private rooms. That money comes from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, helping Leeann get back on her feet.

"I'm grateful, I'm happy and I'm hoping that we can help others on the streets as well instead of them being outside," she said.

Whether at a big box store in Elk Grove Village dropping off supplies.

"We look for cars that seem a bit isolated, especially if there are foggy windows," said Jennifer Rivera, Northwest Compass Program Specialist.

Or at a gas station in Bensenville doing the same, trying to make contact.

"They allow individuals to stay overnight in their parking lots they allow them to use the facilities," said Lisa Snipes, Continuum Planner, DuPage County Continuum of Care.

Advocates all over the city, state, and country this week are working to end the stigma and suffering of homelessness.

"Nobody wants to be outside homeless cold alone, doing nothing with their lives, we want to be successful. We want to succeed. But it just takes that one person, that one organization to notice you," Austin said.