Nearly 65% of homeless population in Chicago lives in doubled-up, temporary housing

An analysis from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that most people in “couch surfing” situations are on the city’s South and West sides.

SHARE Nearly 65% of homeless population in Chicago lives in doubled-up, temporary housing
Electa Bey did not consider herself unhoused when she moved in with relatives temporarily after her husband died. “I’m like, OK, I’m staying with family — doesn’t mean I’m homeless. But it did. I had to look at it and say, wait a minute, I have to go sooner or later.”

Electa Bey said she didn’t consider herself unhoused when she moved in with relatives temporarily after her husband died. “I’m like, OK, I’m staying with family — doesn’t mean I’m homeless. But it did. I had to look at it and say, wait a minute, I have to go sooner or later.”

Jim Vondruska / For the Sun-Times

For about six months, Electa Bey lived with relatives as she saved up money for a new apartment and took the time to find one.

At the time, she didn’t consider herself unhoused. She had just lost her husband, and she was temporarily staying with relatives. She says that she now realizes she was among those doubling up in homes across Chicago.

“I didn’t know I was homeless,” Bey said. “I’m like, OK, I’m staying with family — doesn’t mean I’m homeless. But it did. I had to look at it and say, wait a minute, I have to go sooner or later.”

A recently released report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that the number of people without a permanent home and who are temporarily living in a shelter, on the streets or with others increased across the city from past years to 68,440 people in 2021.

Nearly 65% of those residents — an estimated 44,429 — are temporarily living with other people, which is often referred to as doubling up.

Sometimes referred to as “couch surfing,” people in these situations fall outside traditional definitions of what constitutes a household member and can’t afford to contribute to household expenses, said Sam Paler-Ponce, manager of research and outreach for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Adult children who have their own children or are married or living in an overcrowded place are considered part of this tally, according to the report.

Nearly 35% of those doubling up were on the city’s South Side in neighborhoods spanning from Greater Grand Crossing to Auburn Gresham to Pullman, according to the analysis from the coalition. Another 32% of people were in West Side neighborhoods such as Austin, Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin.

An additional 12% of people in doubled-up situations are on the city’s Southwest Side in neighborhoods like Brighton Park, Gage Park and West Lawn. About 11% are on the city’s Northwest Side in Irving Park, Albany Park and Avondale. Another 9% are temporarily living in North Side neighborhoods like Edgewater, West Ridge and North Center, while less than 1% are in the Loop, Near South Side and Near North Side.

“These doubled-up families are not in typical home-sharing situations,” said Paler-Ponce. “It’s situations of poor Chicagoans that can’t afford to live on their own or formerly contributed to household costs. These are precarious, often overcrowded, always temporary situations that are often missing in data.”

Across the country, about 3.7 million people in 2019 were living in doubled-up situations, said Andrew Aurand, senior vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. He said research has shown that families living in this type of housing are typically in overcrowded spaces with higher levels of stress.

“Many times that type of housing situation is not sustainable in the longer run, so it’s short-term,” Aurand said. “It’s considered a risk factor for more severe forms of homelessness.”

Bey, who is now a housing outreach coordinator at Communities United, said it took her about six months to get back on her feet and secure permanent housing on her own. For her, it wasn’t just that she couldn’t afford a new place, but also requirements such as a specific credit score also slowed her housing search.

“There’s a lot of things that will wind up making you homeless,” she said.

Electa Bey stands for a portrait inside the Communities United office in Hermosa.

Electa Bey stands for a portrait inside the Communities United office in Hermosa.

Jim Vondruska / For the Sun-Times

In particular, families are often the ones who end up in doubled-up households, Paler-Ponce said.

When Bey knocks on doors as part of her role at Communities United, she said she often finds families that are living with other families. Some families tell her they worry about being separated at shelters, and instead decide to temporarily live with other families. Others do so to stay in a certain area.

“They don’t want to leave their neighborhood,” she said. “They don’t want to leave the school, and so they do that.”

Communities United and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless are among community organizations supporting “Bring Chicago Home,” a proposed city ordinance that would generate funds to address homelessness by using fees from some real estate sales. A compromise version of the proposal is expected to be introduced at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Bey said that more affordable housing — rather than shelters — is needed to help families find homes and reduce the number of people doubling up in homes across Chicago.

“That’s how you combat some of the homelessness,” Bey said. “You have to start somewhere. We know that the best way to build a person’s character and their competence is them having a key to open the door that belongs to themself.”

Aurand said the organization has been advocating on the federal level for more rental assistance to help low-income residents access market-rate apartments, and for more funding to increase the number of affordable housing units.

“There’s really no housing market in the country that provides an adequate supply of housing for extremely low-income renters,” Aurand said. “So if they lose their current housing, they have very few options. One of those options is, of course, this form of doubling up.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust. 

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