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Homeless population count shows numbers dropping in Illinois, but advocates warn we may be in a COVID bubble. ‘We know they’re out there.’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2/28/2022 Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune
Mike, right, and Sherry, look for clothing at Community Empower Shower at Willow Creek Church on Feb. 18, 2022, in Crystal Lake. Two Fridays a month people in need, including the homeless, can grab a shower, eat a meal, do laundry, get a haircut and pick out fresh clothes. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Mike, right, and Sherry, look for clothing at Community Empower Shower at Willow Creek Church on Feb. 18, 2022, in Crystal Lake. Two Fridays a month people in need, including the homeless, can grab a shower, eat a meal, do laundry, get a haircut and pick out fresh clothes.

The challenge of determining the number of people who are homeless has become even more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say.

Living under bridges, behind buildings or in remote wooded areas, or staying temporarily with friends or family, people who have no permanent home can become nearly invisible.

People like David Sorenson, a 60-year-old veteran, went uncounted despite being without a home on and off in Chicago’s suburbs for a couple of years before getting back on his feet.

So when government estimates show that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Illinois dropped 15% in 2021, and fell 16% in Chicago, housing advocates expressed some skepticism about the results. The counts, conducted by volunteers and fed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are used to allocate federal funding.

Advocates caution the latest numbers are not comparable to before the COVID-19 pandemic and question the accuracy of the national point-in-time estimate, which is based on hit-or-miss tallies that typically occur one night a year.

The count from January 2021, the most recent one made public, was different from other years because it allowed for sampling a few areas rather than canvassing entire cities. It was also affected by COVID-19 distancing requirements that restricted many shelters to about half their normal capacity. That meant that many people who normally would have been counted at shelters — who make up more than two-thirds of the homeless count — scattered to temporary housing or on the street, making them difficult to find.

Brad, a homeless man who lives in Woodstock, waits inside with groceries after attending the Empower Shower at Willow Creek Church on Feb. 18, 2022, in Crystal Lake. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Brad, a homeless man who lives in Woodstock, waits inside with groceries after attending the Empower Shower at Willow Creek Church on Feb. 18, 2022, in Crystal Lake.

Federal aid and a moratorium on evictions also may have prevented homelessness, advocates said, before those measures expired last summer.

In Chicago, the point-in-time count in January 2021 found about 4,500 people. Black people made up 73%, compared with white people at about 13% and Latinos at 12%, though the three groups make up roughly equal parts of the city’s population.

Even in the years leading up to the pandemic, the point-in-time count in Chicago fell slowly but steadily, from about 6,800 in 2015 to about 5,300 in 2019 — a 22% drop. Poverty rates among Black and Hispanic people dropped significantly in that time as well.

The most recent decrease suggests that extra funding prompted by COVID-19, such as $43 billion for housing in the American Rescue Plan, had a positive impact, HUD spokeswoman Andrea Roebker said.

Locally, Sam Carlson, manager of research and outreach for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, wasn’t sure how much the encouraging numbers reflected poor people leaving poverty or leaving the city altogether. Drawing from several sources, including public school counts of homeless students and people who use homeless services, the coalition estimated about 58,000 homeless people in Chicago in its last count in 2019.

The challenge finding homeless people was evident recently in McHenry County, where volunteers tried to find people on a night following a snowstorm, when temperatures plunged to the single digits. Checking at train stations, behind stores and in wooded areas, they found just four people on the street, plus 13 temporarily at hotels, and six seeking homeless services, organizer Sam Tenuto said.

The services were offered at the Empower Shower, held twice a month at Willow Creek Church in Crystal Lake. In addition to offering hot showers, the event provides clothing, a laundry room, a hot lunch, camping gear, drug addiction services, and reentry help for people getting out of prison. Manager Julie Davis called it “a great place to have community and be with people who love them.”

Sorenson came to the shower to do laundry, and shared his story of how he went through a rehab program that he said not only helped him find a home, but with classes on anger management and other coping skills, helped him “get back into civilization.”

Yet even facilities for people who are homeless come and go. While the Old Firehouse Assistant Center for homeless people in Woodstock closed in 2019, and churches stopped housing PADS overnight shelters during the pandemic, the Pioneer Center for Human Services opened a permanent overnight shelter in the city of McHenry.

The county’s waiting list for government-subsidized homes has been closed for two years. Illustrating the disconnect that sometimes occurs between homeless people and government bureaucracies, one man recently found out he was eligible for an apartment after five years of waiting, but he had lost his phone and missed the 10-day window to claim it. He was hoping to get paperwork to get an extension, but without his own transportation, suddenly had to pay $60 for a car to rush to the necessary agencies.

Another significant change during the pandemic has been in programs to use hotel rooms as temporary shelter for at-risk people. Some counties, like McHenry County, had to curtail the program due to its cost. Chicago was scheduled to end its program at Hotel Julian downtown Friday, while transitioning to other hotels, shelters or housing.

The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services found that housing people temporarily in hotel rooms led to better health and wellness outcomes, spokesman Joe Dutra said. City officials are trying to focus on getting more people into noncongregate and permanent housing and plan to spend $100 million on the effort.

Despite the decreases in homeless estimates, advocates warn that the end of the eviction moratorium may mean a coming wave of people on the street. The Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Loyola University recently estimated as many as 21,000 evictions may come in the first month they are restored — more than in a typical year. The moratorium ended last summer, but advocates say it takes a long time to complete the eviction process.

Megan Bennett, outreach and community case manager for the McHenry County Housing Authority, said many people lost jobs due to COVID-19 closures. Emergency federal funding helped them keep or find homes, but may be dwindling. Whether the people who are homeless get counted or not, she said, “We know they’re out there.”

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com

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