Christine George, PhD, and Betsy Benito (BS ‘98) collaborate to analyze and improve Chicago’s Plan to End Homelessness.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people are homeless in Chicago. Strict definitions of homelessness place the number at around 5,000; those that account for people who are staying with others and seemingly on the brink of having nowhere to sleep tally at least 21,000.*

It may seem that homelessness at these levels is a fact of life in a major U.S. city, but according to Christine George, PhD, of Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL), there was a major increase in the urban homeless population in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and it is this same trend that Chicago is experiencing today. Charitable organizations set up emergency shelter and soup kitchens, but the situation did not improve. In the mid-‘90s, according to George, the prevailing wisdom held that other underlying problems, such as mental illness, drug addiction, or financial collapse had to be solved before the homeless population could re-enter stable housing.

George and her colleagues at CURL, along with Susan Grossman, PhD, of Loyola’s School of Social Work, and Michael R. Sosin, PhD, of University of Chicago’s School of Social Work Administration, recently finished a two-year study, in collaboration with the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, on the efficacy of Chicago’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, launched in 2003.

Betsy Benito (BS ’98), who in her time at Loyola was one of CURL’s first undergraduate fellows, is now the Illinois director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing and was the manager of the City’s Plan to End Homelessness from 2005 to 2011. “The plan was really about systems change,” says Benito. “That’s something that’s different about Chicago’s approach, compared to other cities that adopted this mission early on.”

The plan takes a “housing first” approach, based on research showing that it is access to stable, permanent housing, with supportive services when needed—as opposed to temporary housing, rehabilitation alone, or other programs, that leads to the most people leaving the homeless system and becoming independent.

“They had developed new services and put money into permanent housing and less into emergency housing. So they wanted to see how it was doing—did they need any midcourse corrections?” says George.

CURL’s research involved 16 in-depth focus groups with people in the homeless systems in various kinds of housing programs. They then interviewed a representative sample of 550 people in various stages of homelessness.

“We weren’t just looking at records or talking to people running the organizations, but looking into the lives of homeless people,” says George. “We followed everybody for a year. We learned about them at the beginning, who they were, how they got there, what their problems and needs were, and what they thought of the programs they were in. We wanted to find out what was happening at each stage.”

What they found out was that, as suspected, permanent or interim housing was far better in helping people to get on their feet than temporary, overnight housing. Approximately two-thirds of those in temporary shelters, where they checked in each night and checked out each morning, seemed to be “stuck” in the system. In interim housing, which is longer-term but not permanent, the proportion was closer to one-third. Secondly, the quality of services offered—such as case management or professional services—to those in housing made a big difference.

“They want someone to be their advocate—someone who’s skilled to point them in the right direction,” says George. “And they want the tools to really advocate for themselves.”

For example, many of those interviewed had health or disability issues that likely should have qualified them for government aid, but they needed help navigating the forms and systems to actually access that aid.

“What this research really showed is that we put a lot of effort into the housing piece, and housing works and housing services work. It wasn’t a surprise,” says Benito. “Where we need to have more work is in this coordinated, consistent access to services that create a clear path back to housing.”

George and Grossman recently presented the results of their research to Mayor Emanuel, and they are confident that the city is taking their research into consideration in forming a plan for the next 10 years.

*Statistics from Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness

Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Spring 2012).