Forgotten people

Mary Forney has been on CHA's waiting list for nearly 13 years while living unofficially in public housing. She and her granddaughter Asiah currently stay with a friend in the Robert Taylor Homes. (Photo by Anita Sadler)

Mary Forney has been on CHA's waiting list for nearly 13 years while living unofficially in public housing. She and her granddaughter Asiah currently stay with a friend in the Robert Taylor Homes. (Photo by Anita Sadler)

As the Chicago Housing Authority razes thousands of units as part of its 10-year Plan for Transformation, the city has tracked and attempted to find housing for leaseholders displaced by the demolition. But many observers say thousands of families without leases are the most at risk for homelessness, and the city has not committed enough resources to deal with the problem.

Mary Forney has been staying in CHA developments without a lease for more than a decade. She is one of the thousands who fell on hard times and took refuge in the developments. Forney was raising her daughter’s children in a South Side home she owned, but could not keep up with household bills that were “eating us up.” When her daughter, a leaseholder in the CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes, was imprisoned, Forney jumped at the chance to move in.

Unlike a leaseholder, Forney, 58, has no legal right to a replacement unit or housing subsidy. She applied to the CHA for a place of her own years ago, but her application has languished on the agency’s waiting list. She watched her first set of grandchildren grow up in Taylor and now lives there with another granddaughter, 5-year-old Asiah, whom she adopted.

“I’ve been here so long you’d think they would give me a place of my own already,” she said.

During her years in public housing, Forney built friendships and found a way to survive. Like many living in the CHA, Forney makes ends meet by doing odd jobs for her neighbors. “When I move into a house, I take care of myself. I’ve been a babysitter, a housekeeper, or people ask me to shop for them.”

By the end of next year, Forney’s high-rise will be leveled, and she can’t afford her own apartment. As demolition edges closer, she is facing the loss of both her housing and the income she gets from odd jobs.

The CHA refused to make any official available for an interview concerning the issue of non-leaseholders and homelessness. It did provide, by facsimile, a set of responses to several questions.

High vacancy rates within nearly all CHA developments in recent years created an environment ripe for squatting. At the launch of the transformation plan in 1999, up to 70 percent—or 6,597—of the since demolished units were vacant, according to the CHA. The desperate need for housing in the city made these developments into “de facto homeless shelters,” said Jamie Kalven, an advisor to resident groups at the Stateway Gardens development.

Since 1999, the CHA has demolished 9,400 units, and the overhaul is accelerating: By the end of next year, roughly 7,000 more are slated to be knocked down. Plagued by poverty and lacking other options, many CHA non-leaseholders move from the buildings slated for demolition and double up with family or friends, or seek refuge in homeless shelters. Administrators of the city’s homeless shelters say they have already seen an influx of homeless families from the CHA.

The transformation plan “is adding to the homeless population, particularly for non-leaseholders,” said Nancy Radner, executive director of the Partnership to End Homelessness, a coalition of 80 homeless service organizations. “We have heard estimates of [CHA] non-leaseholders in the tens of thousands, so effectively the homeless population could double.”

“The Chicago Housing Authority decided that it no longer wanted to be the housing of the last resort. Now the responsibility to figure it out is being left to the homeless service providers,” said Brady Harden, the president of Inner Voice, a nonprofit social service agency that oversees 28 shelters accounting for more than 20 percent of all city-funded shelter beds.

But Don Davis, the director of development for the Chicago Department of Human Services, contradicted shelter directors by saying the city had not seen an increasing number of refugees from the CHA in the past year. He added that he feels the upcoming demolition and any resulting displacement “will be very manageable.”

Harden said his network now carefully examines its records and screen incoming families to find out how many are from the CHA. Between October 2002 and September 2003, they discovered hundreds of families had come from public housing. But city officials discount these numbers.

Harden and others anticipate that the non-leaseholders will further bog down homeless service providers during the most active stages of the demolition.

Experts say it’s very difficult to come up with accurate numbers to prove an increase in homelessness, but many providers claim “the system has been bulging at the seams,” Radner said.

There is no definitive proof that the squeeze is directly linked to the CHA’s transformation, but homeless shelters claim Human Services has not made tracking former public housing residents a top priority. And even though academic researchers have done a count of non-leaseholders still living in several developments, CHA officials said any attempt to count non-leaseholders would generate unreliable numbers.

Harden said that it’s vital for shelters to know how many refugees from the CHA they might have to serve, because many are families with children who will need larger accommodations.

The city has a network of 6,000 emergency, transitional and second-stage shelter beds. Emergency shelters house people on an overnight basis. Transitional and second-stage shelters provide longer-term refuge, keeping clients for between four months and two years.

Human Services has historically funded homeless shelters across the city. And the department has strengthened its partnership with shelters in recent years as they worked to implement the city’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.

According to the plan, the city will eliminate the traditional shelter system and provide permanent housing for the city’s estimated 15,000 homeless. However, as the plan moves forward, the elimination of thousands of public housing units could make its goals harder to achieve.

“One plan is creating homelessness and the other plan is combating homelessness,” said Ed Shurna, acting executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Harden urged city officials to take action before it snowballs. “It’s not too late,” he said. “There is still time to reverse what is happening, but first we have to face it.”

Charmita Trimble says that she and her three children, Chavon, Janice and David, are “less bunched up and crunched up” in their new subsidized apartment than in their old home in a CHA high-rise. (Photo by Christopher B. Santiago)
 

Shelter directors say it’ll be difficult to cope with any spike in the number of homeless women with children. Inner Voice used to be open primarily for emergencies like cold weather, but it now provides what has become quasi-permanent housing for thousands, Harden said. “We never had to keep so many shelters running year-round for so many families,” he said. And “the most dramatic thing is that people are staying longer because there are less options.”

Although Human Services officials said the department does not track the number of children in emergency shelters, Harden said his network keeps records. They show that roughly 2,000 families stayed in an Inner Voice shelter in the past year, accounting for approximately 6,000 children.

Harden is concerned that the city has had to increase the number of emergency family shelters. His network alone has gone from three to 14 over the past six years. “What it means to me is that it’s out of control,” Harden said.

But the number of non-leaseholders at risk remains controversial, and city officials seem reluctant to take responsibility.

According to a Human Services official, the department is relying on the CHA to estimate the number of non-leaseholders. “These are people who are living in their buildings, and they really are the ones that have all of the concrete information and data on them,” Director of Communications Lisa Elkuss said.

In its written statement, the CHA said that working with non-leaseholders was not allowed by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding restrictions.

For more than a decade, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh has tracked the residents of Robert Taylor as most of its original 28 buildings were emptied and demolished. His estimates, assembled from a door-to-door census, show that, for every three legal residents in Robert Taylor, another is living there without a lease. And 40 percent of the people squatting in Taylor are women and children.

Venkatesh said the numbers found in Taylor are similar to those in studies done by researchers in other developments.

City officials have enough information, but need to do more to address the problem, Venkatesh said. “It’s not only the CHA, but the entire city doesn’t care about public housing,” he added.

Former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan, the CHA’s independent watchdog, recently published a report that lauded the agency for improving its relocation of leaseholders, but noted that he did not investigate how non-leaseholders fared. He suggested that the next watchdog consider doing so.

And Human Services officials have done little to determine how many non-leaseholders have been driven into shelters.

City-funded shelters typically interview new residents to determine their prior living situations. And, in 2002, when he was the department’s director of homeless services, Davis said a line was added to the quarterly report shelters are required to submit, asking them to report the number of “non-leaseholders” they had housed. Last year, shelters reported that 297 former “non-leaseholder” families came to them for help.

But an error on the reporting form muddled the survey results. Davis said the “non-leaseholder” option was supposed to read “CHA-non-leaseholder,” but “CHA” was mistakenly left off. Officials did not correct the form for this year.

Harden said the new question caused confusion, and some shelter workers were unclear on how to fill it out. “We need to ask the question differently,” he said. “It should be asked, ‘Were people living with friends or family?’ and, ‘Was that in public housing?'”

Harden said Inner Voice surveyed about 1,100 of the roughly 2,000 families who stayed in one of its shelters between October 2002 and September 2003, finding that 260 families, or roughly 800 people, came from a CHA property. Shelter directors also scoured client records to complete the survey. In many instances, people previously identified as simply staying with family or friends were also found to have had CHA addresses.

Davis said conducting surveys like this was “not pure science,” and the numbers could change based on the questions asked.

Harden said the figures are accurate but added that, even if “only half are really from CHA, that’s 400 people now homeless. Combined, they could fill up eight shelters on any given night.”

The city hasn’t completely ignored families displaced by public housing demolition, but the resources committed toward finding them housing do not seem equal to the task.

Harden oversees Inner Voice shelters from the group’s headquarters, a converted warehouse in the Near West Side industrial corridor. Under his watch is a new shelter designed to serve families displaced from the CHA. A three-story walk-up on a stretch of West 123rd Street, It Takes a Village houses 12 former CHA families as part of an agreement forged between the housing authority and Human Services.

Its spacious bedrooms, stacked high with bunk beds, can house 50 people. A waiver from HUD allowed the CHA to give Hman Services a $2 million grant to fund it. Two other homeless service providers have also been awarded smaller grants to set aside accommodations for up to 18 families. Human Services is also building a similar shelter, which could take in 24 more families. Shelters throughout the city are squeezing in families, too, but without any extra funding.

On average, the Service Connector, a city-run program in which private agencies attempt to link CHA residents with child care, job training and other services, refers 10 families to It Takes a Village each month, said Charlotte Williams, the shelter’s director. But referrals don’t guarantee families a place to stay. There is limited availability, as only 11 families have moved out since the summer. Williams said there is always a demand for shelter, and her phone also frequently rings with people in crisis on the other end of the line. “I’ve gotten as many as 10 calls a day and as few as two,” she said.

When Molly McGrath, the new assistant commissioner of Human Services, was hired this summer, statistics on the programs that work with non-leaseholders were virtually non-existent, she said. Since then, only a small number of non-leaseholders have been helped.

Between June 2003 and January 2004, McGrath has tracked 38 non-leaseholder families and 12 single adults. Half were referred to Inner Voice shelters. McGrath said engaging non-leaseholders has been difficult. “We’re trying to paint a bright, big, open doorway that people feel comfortable walking through,” she said, but a lot of people are apprehensive about working with the program.

West Side native Charmita Trimble is a former non-leaseholder city officials can point to as a success story. Since her mother passed away when she was 12, Trimble has been on the move. Relatives opened their homes to her from time to time, but the 35-year-old mother of three has never stayed in one place for long.

In 2001, Trimble and her three children moved in with her cousin, a CHA leaseholder, and her three children, sharing a fifth-floor, three-bedroom apartment in the West Side’s Rockwell Gardens development. Her cousin left in 2002, but, for another year, Trimble kept the apartment without a lease.

But last October, the building was set to close, pending its demolition.

“I had no place to go,” she said.

Then, during a “walk-down,” in which staff from the CHA and Human Services search floor-to-floor for families just prior to a building’s closure, Trimble heard about a city-funded housing program run by Bethel New Life, a West Side social service agency.

Williams, who participates in the walk-downs, said it is a powerful experience. Coming across whole families hiding in the developments is like finding “forgotten people,” she said.

Trimble says her transition into the Bethel program, which provides case management and subsidized apartments for homeless families, was relatively easy. She now lives in an immaculate Garfield Park brownstone and said she feels “less bunched up and crunched up” than in Rockwell.

But Trimble got lucky. Bethel could only take on six families, and the slots were quickly filled. Most families are referred to emergency shelters where the transition isn’t quite so easy.

Tucked away on a residential part of West Hirsch Street in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, the emergency shelter People Reaching Out takes in women and children. Currently, 75 people sleep under the roof of this former convent, now owned by Catholic Charities.

With the continuous hustle and bustle that comes along with any household of 75, the washing machine hums while children play under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
Faced with constant turnover, shelter workers struggle to move families toward independence even though others keep coming in, Program Director Nita Marchant said.
And Marchant said families from the CHA are pushing the already overwhelmed shelter toward a tipping point.

Between October 2002 and September 2003, People Reaching Out, a member of the Inner Voice network, reported housing roughly 75 former CHA residents. “We’re always pushing capacity,” Marchant said. “We’re supposed to have 60 [people staying], but we’re always at 75-plus.”

Inner Voice President Brady Harden says he is alarmed by an increase of homeless families coming from publich housing in recent years. (Photo by Antia Sadler)
 

Mary Forney has migrated among public housing units for years, and once the buildings are eliminated, she and others like her will have few places left to go.

Forney had escaped Taylor for a few years. After raising her grand-children there, she moved without a lease into an apartment in the CHA’s Ida B. Wells development, where her mom is a leaseholder in a different apartment. For three years she maintained an apartment with granddaughter Asiah, and paid rent to the absent leaseholder. Even though the unit was in severe disrepair, Forney, thrilled to have a place of her own, rolled up her sleeves and, without pay, went to work. “I came in there, painted, exterminated and fixed stuff.”

The property manager knew she was there, but gave her a pass, she said. Once, maintenance workers even installed a new door equipped with a lock. “Housing came and told me, ‘Don’t say anything. Keep everything hush, hush,'” she said.

Forney says she would still be there today if she hadn’t been run out last August. A boyfriend of the woman who was on the lease told her to get out or she would be charged with trespassing. “I didn’t want to move out of there,” she said. “I was scared.”

A recent study of non-leaseholders in the South Side’s Ida B. Wells and Madden Park housing developments found that the histories of Forney and Trimble are not unusual. Many non-leaseholders were drawn to the developments through family ties, and poverty then limits their options to escape, according to the study by The Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based economic and social policy group.

The institute surveyed 294 non-leaseholders, and 28 percent said that, when their building is torn down, they will move to another public housing building. Another 19 percent said they will move in with a friend or relative who stays in public housing. A remaining 32 percent said they “didn’t know” what to do next. Roughly three-quarters of those interviewed said they will consider going to a homeless shelter.

A decent market-rate apartment is an unlikely option for a squatter. Currently, a family would have to earn $38,040 a year through a full-time job to afford a typical market-rate, two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Families needing larger apartments feel particularly squeezed. And since the waiting list is closed, they cannot apply for federally funded Housing Choice Vouchers.

In 2003, only 12 percent of households leaving transitional and second-stage shelters were able to move directly into apartments without subsidies, according to Human Services.

Earning roughly $700 a month as a full-time teacher’s aide at a Humboldt Park elementary school, and receiving less than $600 a month in disability payments for her 17-year-old son David, Trimble said making ends meet is virtually impossible. “People look at [me] like, ‘You’ve got a job and a son that’s disabled, you should have enough money to go anywhere.’ But it don’t work like that.”

Employment does not save people from homelessness. Between 2000 and 2002, the number of employed people living in emergency shelters climbed from 252 to 1,321, Human Services data show.

Mary Nelson, the president of Bethel New Life, the agency now housing the Trimbles, said her organization is seeing “an influx from CHA, [and] people are just desperate.” Bethel, among the larger shelter providers in the city and a prolific developer of affordable housing, is much more likely to have vacancies in smaller apartments than in larger ones that could accommodate families, Nelson said.

Family public housing units with multiple bedrooms were once a remedy. But, in March 2001, the CHA closed its waiting list, already bulging with more than 40,000 applications. And more than 13,000 units of family housing will be lost through the CHA’s transformation plan.

Two years into the city’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, many say the solution is apparent. “What these folks need is permanent housing,” Radner said.

Now back at the Taylor Homes, where she doubles up with another family, Forney doesn’t know where she and Asiah are going next.

Recently diagnosed with cancer, she said the stress of not having a real home has made it difficult to confront her health problems. She thinks they’ll eventually leave with the woman they now stay with, who is a leaseholder, when the CHA gives her a housing voucher. “Me and the baby don’t have nowhere else to stay,” she said.

Comments are closed.