333 N Oakley Blvd, Ste 101 Chicago IL 606012 info@rssichicago.org 773.645.8900

Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I heard the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent heroin overdose it surprised, shocked and saddened me. Here is a man of incredible artistic talent, who had a loving family and who also knew that drugs were bad for him. But whatever personal demons he was facing drug use seemed to be what he thought of as his way out, a way of coping.

Unfortunately his death reminded me of the homeless people that we help on a daily bases, and the homeless people we are trying to help. They too are fighting their demons. The difference is that the homeless do not have fame and thousands mourning their death if they pass away. Most people just turn their backs and blame the homeless for having to deal with their drug addiction, mental health issues and chronic health problems. “It must be their fault for being homeless.”

Addiction is addiction, your personal demon follows you through all socioeconomic lines. There are no boundaries.  Mr. Hoffman had the benefit of money, family and friends to keep him together when he was battling his demons. We can’t judge Mr. Hoffman; we were not living his life, just as we can’t judge those that are homeless; we aren’t living their lives. All we can do is help whenever and however we can those who don’t have the benefit of wealth and status. Is a famous person’s life more valuable than a man living on the street? That is for you to decide. I would argue that they are people whose lives have fallen apart, they are former businessmen, cooks, mothers, soldiers and child care workers.

When we provide to those who don’t have the resources or ability to help themselves we may allow that person to regain some of who they were and that can be a very powerful thing.

Homeless at the end of 2013

Today I received Chicago’s Central Referral System’s December 2013 report. The information provided is critical, yet not comprehensive enough, to solving the homelessness issue. As of the end of December 9,801 people applied for housing through the system in 2013. Of those people, 8,648 people have not even ben looked at by supportive housing providers such as RSSI. 370 people were housed in 2013 from the CRS, 9,343 have not yet been housed. That is a staggering number of people in need of housing and a lot more than estimated in the citywide point-in-time count. 37% of the applicants are families with children and 21% have a child under 5 years old.

What this all means is that there are a lot of homeless families in Chicago tonight, primarily single moms with young children. As we look at a high temperature of -9 degrees and a low of -20 coming in a few days my thoughts go out to everyone who does not have a home, a warm bed, or a shelter to stay. Housing is a necessity. Those of us who have worked hard and are lucky enough to have a home should think about how we can help other Americans who do not.

The State of Homelessness in America

In April of this year the National Alliance to End Homelessness put out a report on the state of homelessness in America in 2013. This report, plus what we are finding locally helps to inform what direction we take as an agency, and as a city, to deal with the issue of homelessness.

First I want to provide a little history. The three greatest forces that created the current state of homelessness are the deinstitutionalization movement of the 60s and 70s where the population of mental institutions decrease by 75%; the second being the succession of wars where the population going to war was predominantly poor, and the third force was the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, leading to housing costs that are unattainable by people earning minimum wage. We all have heard about deinstitutionalization, but what people don’t remember is that the idea of deinstitutionalization was good, but it was under resourced and lacked coordination between the federal and state governments. This led to people falling between the cracks and a community support system for people with mental illness that could never meet the real needs. The result of these forces are that the homeless population went from bums and hobos to being people with mental illness and other disabilities, veterans and the working poor.

The McKinney/Vento act was signed originally in 1987 by Reagan and then in 1990 was amended to expand its reach to serve people in greatest need. While the 1980’s may have been the peak of the number of homeless people in the united states and the number of homeless in the US has gone down recently (due to effective funding and programs) who makes up the homeless population and who is entering and exiting the homeless system has changed.

The state of homelessness in US 2013:

  1. Overall the homeless population has decrease by 0.4%. All homeless subpopulations decreased except for families. The largest decreases were seen by the chronically homeless and veterans.
  2. Since 2005 the number of homeless has decreased by 17%
  3. This is different than in previous years where we were seeing the number of chronically homeless decrease, but vets and families were not.
  4. While veterans numbers are now decreasing, families stayed the same and, in fact, the number of people in homeless families increased 1.4% in a year.
  5. The poverty rate increased to 15.9%, up .6% from the previous year, with more than 48 million people living in poverty in the US.
  6. The average cost of rent increased by about 1.5%
  7. More than half of people living in poverty were families with a single adult. Usually single moms. And increase of 6% in the past year.

 

The state of homelessness in Illinois:

  1. Illinois saw an increase in homelessness of 1% in 2012, but a decrease in chronic homelessness by 13%.
  2. Homeless families increased by 1% and homeless veterans increased by 6%. Bucking the national trend.
  3. Median income in Illinois decreased by 3% and poverty increased by 9%.

 

The State of homelessness in Chicago:

We don’t know. The City of Chicago will not release the data from the annual Point in Time Count, so providers such as RSSI have no idea how we are doing in our efforts.

Surviving cuts?

I just stepped off a conference call with other homeless service providers from Chicago where we discussed cutting the funding we all receive from HUD to provide housing and services in order to ensure that the system of care in Chicago is able to continue given the tight financial situation we all are facing. This was a difficult discussion and one that has been occurring for a few years now. I was not surprised that the group of executive directors and program directors who were a part of the meeting were willing to suffer a little in order to ensure that all providers can continue, and that the system improves. These are people who are willing to make sacrifices in order to do what is best for helping people who are homeless. These are not people who are trying to get rich. No one goes into social services thinking they are going to be wealthy, not with the salaries staff are paid. They do it because it is a calling and they want to do something for society. Agencies are willing to make these cuts to their programs and services, to reduce costs, because it is for the greater good. How many people are willing to suffer a little set back, to have to do without, in order to make society a better place?

The question for me becomes how do we raise more funds in order to sustain our growth and have the positive impact on the communities we serve? I am not sure how to get the message out to people who have the resources that supporting us means making that difference. How many of the 1% are willing to suffer a little in order to do what is right for society? How many of any of us are willing to make short term sacrifices in order to have long-term benefits that may not be for us directly, but are for the greater good?

Surviving growth

I have always been very careful about the growth of RSSI. During the first 5 years I was here there were opportunities to grow that would have been beyond our capacity, and may have hurt the organization in the long run. During that time I focused on stabilizing the organization and ensuring that the policies and procedures were in place and solid, and focused on developing the model of service provision. I wanted to ensure that we were providing the best possible care that was the most cost effective and efficient. Every penny was important and we had to make due with what we had or what we could get in donations. We have received some significant donations of materials and funds that have come at critical times and allowed us to have “real” offices and be professional.

People do not always realize what impact their donations have on an organization, but even small donations of materials such as chairs, desks, file cabinets, etc can have a huge impact. Even the donation of $50 can have a huge effect. It could mean the difference between us helping a program participant get the extra help they need to make it through another month, or not. As we grow these are the donations that we need to stay effective and efficient.

As you grow your budget with government and foundation grants, you must also increase your individual and corporate support in order to be sustainable. We are ready for the next level and are focused on sustainability. Our goal is to serve at least 1,000 households a year with homeless prevention and intensive services for people experiencing homelessness who are disabled. My hope is that eventually we can focus more on homelessness prevention as we decrease the number of people entering the homeless system. We can get there, but we need support to do it.

Surviving growth

I have always been very careful about the growth of RSSI. During the first 5 years I was here there were opportunities to grow that would have been beyond our capacity, and may have hurt the organization in the long run. During that time I focused on stabilizing the organization and ensuring that the policies and procedures were in place and solid, and focused on developing the model of service provision. I wanted to ensure that we were providing the best possible care that was the most cost effective and efficient. Every penny was important and we had to make due with what we had or what we could get in donations. We have received some significant donations of materials and funds that have come at critical times and allowed us to have “real” offices and be professional.

People do not always realize what impact their donations have on an organization, but even small donations of materials such as chairs, desks, file cabinets, etc can have a huge impact. Even the donation of $50 can have a huge effect. It could mean the difference between us helping a program participant get the extra help they need to make it through another month, or not.

This year we are celebrating 15 years of providing services. This year our budget will have grown to over 1.5 million and the number of people served will be over 700 households. While not everyone we have helped has gone on to stability and independence, over 90% of the people we help have! That is pretty impressive. This growth has a double edge to it though, because as we increase our funding streams we need to increase our fundraising from individuals and corporations. This is a very hard time to do this. Our economy is still getting back on its feet, and most people are being cautious with their money. So the next few years will be focusing on maintaining the quality of services, continuing to increase our impact on the communities we serve and reach out to more people, and make our growth sustainable. Hopefully as the economy improves and there is more financial stability for everyone the need for our services will decrease and we will not need to grow and more. I look forward to that day.

STRIKE!!

Today the Chicago Teachers Union is striking, leaving thousands of kids and parents scrambling to deal with childcare issues and uncertainty in their education. The teachers are asking for decent pay and working conditions, and the Chicago Public Schools are trying make their budget work and ensure find a way to evaluate teacher performance. How does this affect the homeless population? Well, first of all the schools play a critical role in the lives of children. It can offer some certainty, an education which can lead to greater opportunity and a community. Most of the disabled people who are homeless and end up on the streets have not completed their high school education. This is usually because the onset of their illness starts in the teenage years and may go untreated until later in adulthood. If schools had better resources to deal with these issues and there were more supports for parents in low-income neighborhoods, we could catch these mental health, physical and substance abuse issues early and treat them before it leads to homelessness. This is the work of social workers.

What would happen if social workers decided to strike? Typically social service workers get paid a lot less than teachers, and work with some of the most challenging problems we face in society – substance abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, AIDS, homelessness, etc. Imagine social workers in Chicago going on strike for one week. What about a month? What would the effect be on kids? or low income families? Or almost anyone in need of help?

Social workers are undervalued. They work everyday to help everyone from your everyday Joe to the person whose life has fallen apart. Let’s remember that when we hear about a strike.

The question of giving money on the street

My Development Director, Sandra, and I were discussing giving money to homeless people on the street today, and it made me think. When I first moved to Chicago in the early 90’s I gave money to people on the street. After working with homeless people in Chicago for 20 years I have decided that when it come to giving money to homeless people on the street I would rather do something so they don’t HAVE to beg on the street. It’s like the saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”. Giving money on the street on helps in the short term, and may allow the person to stay on the street. I don’t want to help anyone stay on the street. In Chicago we have a variety of services available to the homeless, including food pantries and soup kitchens. In many ways we have had things backwards. We had made it easy to stay on the street and hard to get into and stay in housing. In Chicago we are changing that. Housing First housing and Harm Reduction services make it easy to get into and stay in housing. There should be no incentives for keeping people down, keeping them homeless or keeping them poor. Anyone should have the freedom to choose living on the street if they want, but no one should be forced to because of a lack of housing, because of disability or because of high expectation thresholds because someone is asking for help. When we help someone eat who is living on the street, we also need to provide them with an opportunity to get housed and rejoin society.

New money for homeless services

Mayor Emmanuel promises additional dollars for homeless services.

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Plan 2.0

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Mayor Emmanuel announces the plan to end homelessness 2.0 at New Mom’s new building.