In 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development identified 5,390 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago.
But in a new report released Tuesday, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless put forth a different count: 65,611.
The difference is largely due to the difficulty of counting the fluid homeless population and the definitions of homelessness used by federal agencies, definitions that some advocates say keep resources from some of the most vulnerable populations — children and families living doubled up, or temporarily staying with others.
HUD defines homelessness generally to mean staying in a shelter or a place not meant for human habitation, which excludes those living doubled up from its estimate. The agency conducts a point-in-time count of the number of individuals living in sheltered or unsheltered locations, usually occurring in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education does include children and youth who are living doubled up in its definition of homelessness. Chicago Public Schools reported serving 16,663 homeless students during the 2019-20 school year.
But neither of these sources provide data on the holistic population of people living doubled up or in temporary situations like couch surfing. That’s where the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless aims to come in.
“This is a real opportunity to put a number to a population that has otherwise been hidden in data,” said Sam Carlson, manager of research and outreach for the coalition.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ most recent report reveals that 49,585 people experienced homelessness by doubling up, making it the most common type of homelessness in Chicago. And while the number of people who experienced homelessness by living in shelters or on the streets decreased — likely due to reduced shelter capacity during the pandemic, Carlson said — the number of people doubling up increased by more than 20%.
The coalition’s overall estimate of 65,611 represents a 12.6% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness compared with 2019. Of that total, more than 75% temporarily stayed with others at one point.
According to the coalition’s report, in 2020 homelessness disproportionately affected Black or African American Chicagoans, who made up 55.8% of the total population experiencing homelessness and 75.9% of the population fitting HUD’s definition. Chicago also saw a significant increase in the number of Hispanic or Latino people experiencing homelessness from 12,813 in 2019 to 18,272 in 2020.
Molly Brown, an associate professor of clinical-community psychology at DePaul University, said that the significant increase in the doubled-up population revealed in the report highlights a housing crisis that was previously hidden by the pandemic. Before, many researchers were predicting the pandemic’s negative impact on housing stability, but 2021 data from HUD wasn’t showing that clearly, Brown said.
HUD’s point-in-time count in 2021 was interrupted by the pandemic, as some communities did not conduct counts of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
The coalition report’s figure of 65,611 was found by combining the number of people experiencing doubled-up homelessness with the number of people who requested services from HUD over the course of 2020, data collected by the Chicago Homeless Management Information System. The coalition omitted the point-in-time figure from its calculation, Carlson said.
“Point in time methodology woefully undercounts homelessness, and it points to the wrong policy solutions,” Carlson said.
The coalition report’s methodology for determining the scope of doubled-up homelessness was developed in collaboration with Vanderbilt University and the Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center. The model uses data from the American Community Survey, a yearly assessment conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that collects housing and population information. Researchers, including Carlson, published a study in March 2021 with information on how to replicate the model.
This model for quantifying doubled-up homelessness goes beyond generating a number. Rather, it represents an effort to improve the public’s understanding of homelessness and the breadth of situations that lead to it, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of the national advocacy organization SchoolHouse Connection.
These estimates demonstrate the fluidity of homelessness, which can change night-to-night, Duffield said. Each population experiencing homelessness — whether it be doubled up, sheltered or unsheltered — is not static.
“There’s a homeless population, and they move between all of those pieces,” she said.
Before Chicagoan Honni Harris stayed in her sister’s living room during the COVID-19 pandemic, she lived at the Pacific Garden Mission shelter. But after getting sick, she returned to her younger sister’s couch and shared a sectional sofa with her older son from August 2019 to May 2020. Now, she lives with her son in his apartment.
“It’s hard to live in somebody’s living room,” she said.
April Harris, a grassroots leader for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, who is not related to Honni Harris, experienced living doubled up with her husband and children in Pittsburgh after their previous housing situation became unsafe almost 10 years ago.
“When you’re living with somebody and your name is not on the lease, and you’re not on the mortgage, and you don’t have a key to the place, and you’re sleeping on the couch or the floor, it’s not your own space, and they can kick you out anytime if they get sick of you,” April Harris said.
“We never knew if today was going to be the day when they were going to ask us to leave,” she added.
Due to harassment, they eventually had to leave the state, and the family arrived in Chicago in 2014. They stayed at a shelter, but it took a week and half to be accepted.
“They said that we didn’t look homeless,” she said.
HUD’s narrow definition of homelessness bars resources from those in unstable situations that can preclude street and shelter homelessness, Duffield said.
“Some of the most vulnerable children, youth and families aren’t even able to get in line,” Duffield said.
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Duffield said the strict definition originates from the idea that people who are outside and unsheltered are the most vulnerable and that changing it will flood the systems for available resources with people who are less vulnerable.
“But what that doesn’t acknowledge is that for children, a mom’s not going to be on the streets if she wants to keep her kids, so she’s going to be in situations that are equally injurious,” she said.
Understanding the scope of homelessness is the first step toward finding solutions, Brown said.
Locally, the Bring Chicago Home campaign seeks to raise the city’s real estate transfer tax on properties over $1 million to 1.9% to generate more than $160 million toward permanent supportive housing, which combines affordable housing with wraparound services like mental health care.
“Providing people with housing is a way to protect public safety,” Brown said. “It is a way to promote mental health access and mental health well-being.”
Joe Dutra, public affairs director for the Department of Family and Support Services, cited the city’s investments to repair homeless shelters, its Rental Assistance Program and Expedited Housing Initiative as part of the city of Chicago’s efforts to serve homeless populations.
“Moving forward, we are working alongside the Department of Housing to develop more permanent supportive housing solutions through a $35M investment from the Chicago Recovery Plan that, along with additional investments through the American Rescue Plan, will build 220 new units for the housing insecure,” Dutra said in an emailed statement.