Removing homeless from O’Hare is only a stopover in city’s efforts to help the unhoused

The city has to do a far better job of bringing its mental health programs, housing initiatives and other resources to bear.

SHARE Removing homeless from O’Hare is only a stopover in city’s efforts to help the unhoused
A homeless man sleeps next to an elevator bank near Terminal 2 at O’hare International Airport, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

A homeless man sleeps next to an elevator bank near Terminal 2 at O’hare International Airport, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

City officials rightfully stepped up last week and relocated the homeless people who were camped out around O’Hare Airport.

“We have taken and will continue to take the steps that are necessary to move people out of the airports,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in announcing the measures at O’Hare. “The airports are a very different place than on the street under an underpass.”

We disagree. The confluence of circumstances that would compel a homeless person to seek shelter at O’Hare are the same ones that would cause them to bunk under an overpass or on Lower Wacker Drive.

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Framing the move simply as an airport security issue threatens to undermine the importance of this growing problem, and places removal over solutions when dealing with the homeless crisis in this town.

Haymarket Center’s O’Hare Outreach program — a non-profit effort that helps those who have sought shelter at the airport — said the agency served 618 people in 2022, a 58% increase from 2021.

And citywide, Haymarket had 14,000 interactions with the unhoused in 2022, compared to 8,132 in 2018.

The uptick points to the seriousness of the issue all around Chicago, not just at its major airport.

The increase is also a clear sign that the city has to do a far better job of bringing its mental health programs, housing initiatives and other resources to bear.

Chicago isn’t alone. Los Angeles, which has become the symbol of the nation’s homeless problem, announced a bid this month to move 17,000 unhoused people from tent cities to hotels rooms by next year, and then to permanent housing after that.

And perhaps help is on the horizon in Chicago also.

Earlier this month, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge visited Chicago to announce a $60 million federal grant designed to address the city’s homeless issue.

The cash will help provide at least 700 units of housing, in addition to “intensive case management and support services” according to HUD.

The money is expected to expand the city’s ability to deal with homeless individuals living on the street and support groups that are currently helping that population find housing and clinical services.

It’s a relative drop in the bucket against an issue that’s gone decades without being seriously addressed.

But we hope it’s the start of real change.

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