City's homeless population may be on the rise

Homeless shelters in Chicago and across the state are reporting an drastic increase in the number of people they're serving, according to a new report by Housing Action Illinois.

Over the last six months of 2008, 71 percent of shelters across Illinois said they served more people. Many places are seeing as many as 10 percent more people.

In Chicago,San Jose Obrero Mission, an interim housing organization in Pilsen, has seen a rise in the need for services as unemployment rates continue to climb.

Israel Vargas, the executive director of San Jose Obrero, says the people he's meeting don't fit the typical stereotype of the homeless as mentally ill or with severe problems.

"We're finding more and more that the average Joe that has no problems is just falling through the cracks," says Vargas.

Vargas says three or four years ago his shelter was serving around 140 people a year. About half of those people would go on to complete the four month program designed to help them find a job and permanent housing.

In the last two years, he's serving more people - almost 200 a year, but seeing a substantial decrease in the number of people who complete the program because his clients can't find jobs to keep them off the streets.

"These are people that have schooling, with years of job experience, and yet they cannot find a job," says Vargas. "Those that find jobs are getting paid so little they're not able to afford a regular apartment."

With the economy in a downward spiral, Vargas says he thinks the need for housing will continue to rise.

"I've only got 34 beds," says Vargas. "I assure you that if I had more, they would be filled to capacity."

San Jose Obrero isn't the only shelter that's full. Citywide, many shelters are turning away people on a nightly basis, according to Julie Dworkin of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Dworkin says the city first started keeping track of turnaways in 2008 and only tracks one week per month, so it's difficult to know how the numbers will change.

But the numbers did increase, with 1,139 people being turned away one week in October and 1,310 in November - an increase of 15 percent.

In addition to shelter turnaways, Dworkin says it's important to look at the number of families "doubling up" - sharing housing with friends or family when they've lost their own.

"A lot of people hwo have lost their homes - this is where they end up," says Dworkin. "That's a huge number of people who aren't being served."

Finding out how many families are doubling up isn't easy, but the best statistics come from Chicago Public Schools data on homeless students.

Of the homeless students in CPS, around 80 percent of their families are doubling up with another family, according to statistics provided by Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

And the number of homeless students is rising. In the 2007-2008 school year, the number of homeless students increased 9 percent to 10,642.

From September to December of 2008, CPS identified 9,689 homeless youth, up 23.5 percent compared with the same period in the previous school year.

Bob Palmer, director of Housing Action Illinois, says one third of people served by homeless services are under the age of 21.

"For many years now, the fastest growing population of people experiencing homelessness was families with children, but the recession has certainly increased that," says Palmer.

Dworkin says the resources often just aren't there to take care of so many people. She says CCH is fighting for money from the state and federal government for homeless prevention services.

"There is definitely increased need," says Dworkin. "More people are going to be turned away, but the number of people being turned away is already so huge."

Housing Action Illinois is calling for $2 billion from the economic recovery package to be dedicated to homeless prevention services and another 3.6 billion to create new 200,000 Housing Choice Vouchers.

Palmer says the money is desperately needed to stabilize families and communities.

"Particularly because of the recession, it's going to be harder for people to find jobs," says Palmer. "They're going to need a long-term housing solution."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.