Residents skeptical about new CHA program to prevent homelessness

Chicago public housing residents facing eviction will soon have a new resource to help them stay off the streets.

The city Housing Authority Board of Trustees OK'd a new program called the Street Homeless Prevention Initiative. It's a partnership with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services that helps residents being evicted by getting them into a shelter, providing crisis counseling, and referrals to other city services.

The commissioners approved the intergovernmental agreement today at their monthly meeting, which was held at the 18th district police station near the Cabrini-Green Homes.

CHA officials say they created the program in response to a gap in services for people who are being evicted from public housing.

"There are sometimes when evictions are unavoidable, but for those people, if we can ease their transition out of public housing, we think it could help," says Andy Teitelman, vice president of resident services at CHA. 

However, public housing advocates hope that CHA can do more to keep residents in their homes.

"It's good as far as it goes," says Richard Wheelock, attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. "Our concern is that these homeless prevention funds might be used to preserve the public housing unit they're already in. That does not seem to be part of the plan."

Wheelock says homeless prevention services tend to strain the city budget, instead of using already existing federal funds for public housing.

"In the long run, it's more cost effective to have people stay in their housing that to put them in the shelter system," says Wheelock.

The $500,000 program would create an early notification process. CHA can notify DFSS of families that may need services. DFSS can then offer services like crisis counseling, emergency shelter placement, transportation assistance, storage of personal items and emergency food. The program is voluntary and will start on March 1.

Residents leaders say time will tell if the program will really benefit tenants.

"It sounds like a good idea," says Deverra Beverly, president of the Central Advisory Council. "But who's going to monitor it? Who's going to implement it? Who's going to follow up?"

Beverly also expressed concerns about residents who have already been evicted from CHA and their ability to access these new services. 

Teitelman says the specific details on the program will be worked out after the intergovernmental agreement begins. 

Willie Burrell, president of the North East Scattered Sites, says CHA should focus instead on helping people to remain in their homes. He says the social service system is already strained by the lack of affordable and low-income housing.

"The shelters are already overcrowded, so I don't know how it could possibly work," says Burrell.

Homeless prevention services may be increasingly necessary for public housing residents. Evictions are going up at Cabrini-Green, says Carol Steele, resident and member of the Coalition to Save Public Housing.

She says CHA could easily prevent evictions by letting people stay in the many empty units they already have.

"All they gotta do is open up their doors, and people won't be homeless," says Steele.

Teitleman says he has not seen an increase in evictions, and that the program was not created in response to more evictions.

"It doesn't come out of any crisis or new problem," he says. 

Other residents are wondering why CHA is spending money on residents who aren't paying their rent or following the rules instead of appeasing compliant tenants.

Gloria Williams, resident leader at Harold Ickes, says she wants to see revitalization efforts at her development, where residents haven't seen any changes since the Plan for Transformation started.

"Fix the place up," Williams says. "We're here."

But the amount spent on the program is small, says Teitelman, and doesn't come out of the budget for regular resident services.

Overall, advocates are glad CHA are reaching out to residents to prevent them from becoming homeless.

"CHA is doing something, but is it enough?" says Robert Whitfield, attorney for the Central Advisory Council. "Probably not, but they have limited resources."

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