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It was about 11:00 PM on a Thursday night, and three women walked into a 24-hour McDonald’s in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. They saw a group of men sitting at a table looking tired and a bit rough. They approached the table and asked if any of the men identified as being homeless, and if so, would they be willing to answer some questions about their experience. The men graciously invited them to sit down and start a conversation.
This kind of interaction happened all over the city on January 26, 2017, when Chicago conducted its annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless count. This is a nationwide event to count the number of homeless living on the streets and in shelters in major cities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires all cities that receive federal funding for homeless services to conduct a PIT count of sheltered homeless every year and of unsheltered homeless every two years, but Chicago counts all homeless every year.
How does the PIT count happen?
The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and All Chicago, a membership organization whose mission is to prevent and end homelessness in Chicago, coordinate the PIT count. Deborah’s Place, a member of All Chicago, also serves as a lead agency in organizing volunteers for the PIT count.
This year, more than 400 volunteers gathered at lead agency sites to go out across the city and look for the homeless living on the street. Teams of three or more people drove through every neighborhood from 9:30 PM until 2:00 AM equipped with supplies – blankets, coats, hats, gloves, socks, supply packs and more – with the goal of finding people to interview or simply tally. Each team had a stack of surveys and tally sheets and received training on how to approach and engage with the homeless they encountered.
The coordinators of the PIT count look to recruit at least 300 volunteers, so having more volunteers made the experience better for everyone involved. “Many volunteers want to engage with the homeless,” says Adriana D’Amore Camarda at DFSS, “but of course, it would be ideal to not find anyone on the street.” Unfortunately, there are always people on the street, even when it is extremely cold, and the information volunteers collect is invaluable to helping understand the causes of homelessness and develop strategies to address the complex issues facing this population.
What does the data tell us?
The data gathered from year to year show trends in homelessness, which help the city and service providers address the most prominent issues affecting the population. According to Ms. Camarda, “Annual reporting is the only way you can measure change.” We now know that there has been a growth in encampments, like the ones under the north side viaducts, in the past two years. There has also been a small, but steady, increase in the number of unaccompanied women who are homeless over the past several years. The challenge is to figure out the causes for these trends and work to address them.
What do volunteers learn?
From the perspective of volunteers, the PIT count is about so much more than data. It’s about truly seeing the homeless and engaging with those living on the street. Most first time volunteers don’t know what to expect. Stacey Quast, a new volunteer, wondered, “How many people would we see out on the streets? How many would agree to participate in our survey? And the question others wanted to know the most when I told them I was participating, would I be safe?” Her questions were answered that night, but the experience went much deeper.
As she listened to people, like the men she encountered at a McDonald’s, she began to identify with the parts of their stories that went beyond their life on the streets. Some spoke of their children – their ages, their accomplishments, how they wish they could be a part of their kids’ lives. It made her think of herself and her own parents and what it would take for them to become homeless. The face-to-face encounters with people are a big reason the PIT count is so important.
Her takeaway from that night was a better understanding of the humanness of homelessness. “We forget that the homeless are people, just like us, and they deserve to be treated as such. The community is only as strong as its members and if we cannot be a champion for our neighbors then our community is doomed to eventually fail,” she says. The PIT count is part of building a community in which the homeless truly count.
Last year’s report on the 2016 PIT count can be found on our website at www.deborahsplace.org/updates-events. We will post the 2017 report when it’s published.
Deborah picks through a small shelf loaded with mementos, and chooses a faded photo of a young girl with a bright smile and dark, curly hair. “This is my mom,” she explains, beginning to cry. The resemblance is remarkable. It is clearly a cherished keepsake and a reminder of a better time in her life.
Deborah lived on the streets for nearly four years and was most recently living in one of the north side’s viaduct encampments. Through the chronically homeless pilot program established by the City of Chicago, Deborah’s Place has expanded its community-based services (CBS) program to house people living in these encampments. Deborah is one of the people who moved directly from the street into an apartment. Working with her case manager, Anna, Deborah has begun to settle into her new home.
Although she just moved in in December 2016, her place already feels warm and lived in. It is sparsely furnished, but cheerful, with items secured by Anna. “No one else that I talk to has a case manager that is as responsive or anywhere near as caring,” she says. The winter sun streams through the east-facing windows to illuminate the faces of her family and loved ones in faded photographs, like the one of her mother.
Before Deborah’s Place helped her into an apartment, Deborah wasn’t able to keep memories like this with her. Sleeping under the Fulton Street viaduct, Deborah was protected from the rain but not from the freezing winds off of Lake Michigan or from other people stealing from her or from animals seeking refuge under the bridge. “At night, all the little critters would come out and run across our bodies. You can’t imagine the horridness of it.” In spite of this, Deborah chose to live outside because her experiences in shelters were worse. She spent one winter in a shelter riddled with bedbugs. She was traumatized to wake up to tiny bites all over.
Even though her situation was desperate, she managed to find friends among the other homeless in the area. “It always felt like we really were a community,” she says. “They were my support system and I suppose I was theirs.” People in the neighborhood were kind to her as well, including a local priest whose services she still attends and a couple living in a nearby high rise who always stopped to chat while walking their dog. The rug on her living room floor was a moving gift from them.
After those and other harrowing experiences, she didn’t expect much from Deborah’s Place. She couldn’t imagine having her own apartment, as nice as this one, with shiny, new appliances and plenty of space. Deborah explains that where you live is who you are. “When I look around here, I see the memories. I feel more grounded. I know where my base is, I know I’ve been through down times, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m less than anybody. I don’t devalue myself because I have been homeless. It’s a very safe place for me.”
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Tiffany Isom is the Residential Manager at Teresa’s Interim Housing program located in Deborah’s Place’s Old Town location at 1530 N. Sedgwick. She became interested in organizing the Point-in-Time (PIT) count at Deborah’s Place because of the work she does with the women in that program, many of who come directly from the street. She thought that participating in this annual event would give her more insight into how to engage with the women she sees every day. But her experience has taught her so much more.
Tiffany sees this as a leadership opportunity, getting to network with people who are interested in addressing the problem of homelessness. The count brings people together from all over the city – volunteers, other agencies, city workers – for a powerful and unifying experience. It’s also a chance for her to represent Deborah’s Place and educate people about the agency.
Deborah’s Place is one of only two agencies coordinating the PIT count for the west side of Chicago. Tiffany works with the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and All Chicago to plan the count. This one night is a snapshot of homelessness in Chicago that provides data to inform government agencies about the importance of investing in and expanding homeless services and educates the public about the reality faced by thousands of people in the city each year.
Professionally, Tiffany feels this experience has helped her grow in her position at Deborah’s Place. “Being part of the Point-in-Time count has shown me just how important this work is that we’re doing,” she says. She has a better understanding of the needs of the women and continually wants to learn how to engage with them and provide the best possible services and support. This year, she was elected as a member of the Point-in-Time sub-committee at All Chicago, so she will be part of the planning and evaluation process year round.
Deborah’s Place is proud of Tiffany and recognizes her hard work and dedication to the women we serve and the larger homeless population.
Help women, like Deborah, find permanent homes and get the support they need.
Volunteer for next year’s PIT count. Contact Tiffany Isom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow us on social media and sign-up for our mailing list to receive updates on the PIT count and other Deborah’s Place news.
Contact Michelle Patterson, Development Director, at email@example.com or 773.638.6537 for more information.
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