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City to start housing pool to improve assistance to homeless residents

Those experiencing homelessness in Chicago . used to sleep under the underpass at West Wilson Avenue and North Marine Drive. The city, along with several city departments, are introducing a Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool program to help connect the homeless to rental assistance and health care. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

To alleviate poverty and homelessness, Chicago needs job training and affordable housing. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Over the course of a 27-year addiction to crack cocaine, Carlos Navarro was homeless many times, bouncing from treatment center to recovery home to another veteran-centered treatment facility before finding a home.

“It was the nexus to recovering for me,” Navarro, 64, said. “You can’t improve without a home. It gives you a stable, safe environment and it creates the opportunity to make levelheaded decisions.”

Focusing on people like Navarro, the Chicago Housing Authority, city departments including the Department of Family and Support Services and some housing groups are working together to create the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool.

The program, still in the early planning stages, will provide rental assistance to those experiencing homelessness. That means paying all or part of their rent and working with landlords to make sure housing needs are covered. The program is also enlisting the help of a housing-focused non-profit which will be the main force behind connecting potential tenants to housing.

Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler said the goal is to put out a Request for Information in January to non-profits to gauge their interest in partnering with the city.

By having a non-profit with rental expertise at the helm, tenants will also be connected to “intensive case management,” or mental and physical health care providers, to help them get back on their feet, find jobs and on the road to self sufficiency.

“The program would help frequent users right now of various crisis response systems, specifically people who appear in emergency rooms regularly, who engage with Cook County Jail or people who are in shelters,” Butler said.

“It’s not that there isn’t housing out there, but it can be difficult to jump through all the hoops and requirements to manage it. By pulling together we’ll help make it easier for homeless individuals to navigate that complex system.”

Requirements for housing vary by agency and can derail a person’s chances. By creating one unified housing pool, and bringing together different agencies, the process would be more streamlined. Organizations, as well as the city agencies, would connect people needing housing to healthcare services and understanding landlords by managing the housing process from beginning to end.

In 2015, over 80,000 people were homeless in Chicago, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

For Lavaughn Johnson, who was homeless for two years before Heartland Alliance helped him find a home, the experience is one he “wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

“Sitting out in the cold, you can only think of ‘what ifs,’” Johnson said. “A home is a huge stepping stone that I never thought I would have.”

The number of individuals experiencing homelessness now is believed to be over 5,600, according to the city’s Point-In-Time Count and Survey Report on homelessness.

In December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance to dedicate $500,000 for the program from the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund and $500,000 in 2018 corporate funds.

The CHA will contribute $800,000 in HUD funds; that money was approved by the CHA board in November. The city and its partners will also work to secure funding for the housing pool from foundations and other public and private organizations.

The current framework for the plan is modeled after similar subsidized housing initiative programs in Los Angeles and Houston, according to a statement from the housing authority.

L.A.’s program was designed to secure quality, affordable housing for patients in the county’s Department of Health Services. It was a collaboration between Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services and a community-based group called Brilliant Corners that works to secure a broad range of housing options.

Betsy Benito, executive director of the Illinois branch of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said talks surrounding Chicago’s housing pool started around two years ago.

“We want to build a pool of housing that’s more flexible for people who may not meet other eligibility requirements of traditional homeless rental assistance,” Benito said. “Supportive housing has been shown to work, and it can drastically improve overall quality of life.”

As someone who knows the experience firsthand, Navarro would agree.

“I like to think I flipped the script on my addiction because I’m giving back to the community,” Navarro, who has been clean for seven years, said. “My community is better with me than without me. I hope the city can help as many people as possible because it really meant a lot to me.”