Press "Enter" to skip to content

An interview with Douglas Fraser

Douglas Fraser on the Zorns’ back deck

 On Feb. 2, 2023,  I guest-hosted for Joan Esposito on WCPT-AM 820 and spent most of the final hour talking with my good friend and neighbor Douglas Fraser, the executive director of Chicago Help Initiative, a not-for-profit that addresses the needs and concerns of those without housing. I wanted to have him on because he and his wife were among our dinner guests recently, and when the conversation veered into talking about housing issues in Chicago, Fraser had a lot to say that I thought deserved a wider audience. Here is an edited transcript of our on-air discussion.

Eric Zorn: I’ll start by reading this off the web: Chicago Help Initiative is “a consortium of business, residential, religious, social service and institutional volunteer leaders striving to promote an atmosphere of dignity and compassion toward those in need by providing access to food, health services, shelter and employment.”

What else should we know about what you do?

Douglas Fraser:

That we really focus on three things. One is bringing guys in for meals. (I say “guys” because about 85% of the folks at our meals are men, and that likely reflects the unsheltered homeless population. Overall homeless, including people who are doubled up, sleeping on couches, etc is much more evenly divided between men and women.). At our meals, about half of the people are chronically homeless and half of them are transitioning in and out of housing.

Our second focus is to try to connect them to resources by putting them into peer groups where they connect with other people. Because relationships are the key to moving forward in life. You need friends, and you need resources.

The third thing we focus on is coordinating social service delivery in six churches around the city. We train volunteers there to provide, at meals, some of the basic things the homeless need to move forward. Like apply on housing lists, get email, get phones, get Medicaid, get SNAP, a whole bunch of things like that that help them access resources in the different parts of the city where they choose to live and where they choose to eat, rather than making them move around.

EZ: All over the city we see people living in tents under the viaducts and in parks. And they can do that when the weather’s mild. But when it gets really cold, where do they go? Is there enough room in the shelters?

DF: There is not. In 2015, the city had about 5,200 shelter beds. And now we have about 2,900. In other words, we’ve lost about 40% of the beds. One reason for the dropoff has been COVID. Providers had to space people out and eliminate cots. But the decline began before COVID, when the city shifted to a policy of prioritizing funding for new housing over shelters. But they didn’t come close to building enough housing to pick up that slack.

And now we’re in a rough spot because we have more homeless now than we did last year. If you look at the Homeless Management Information System, you see a 15 to 20% increase in the number of people asking the city for help this year over last year. And this is a national phenomenon. It’s not just Chicago. You’re seeing so many people sleeping in emergency rooms, sleeping on the CTA and living in tent compounds because they literally have nowhere to go. If you go back a couple of years, there were only about six to eight nights a year when it was so cold out that those 5,000 shelter beds filled up. Now they’re full every night.Anybody experiencing a sudden housing crisis has nowhere to go.

EZ: Tell me about the city’s decision to prioritize housing initiatives over shelters. You would think officials would have planned that out carefully so that enough resources would remain in place.

DF: Right, you would think that. You would think they’d have wanted to keep some slack in the system to be sure to be able to deal with weather-related surges in demand for beds. But they didn’t. And now we’re in a position where there are more people that want those beds than can get them. That’s why you’re seeing this mess.

It’s also worth noting that there’s been an influx of about 5,000 asylum seekers from the southern border into the city. The vast majority of them are being housed in about 12 different sites that the city has developed. But there’s overflow that impacts the shelter system. I’ve talked to some of the shelter providers, and on some nights they tell me they have as much as 20% of their beds taken up by asylum seekers.

EZ: Is the crisis in opioid addiction figuring into the overall problem?

 DF: Opioids and the lack of availability of mental health treatment have an effect, no doubt. But the bottom line is the cost of housing went up by about 14% in the city in the last year. And the biggest increases were on the south and the west sides. So what happens is that those people lower down on the economic ladder get pushed off. You get more families under stress, and that results in more people being out on the street.   And the most common way that people get off the street is not through organizations like Chicago Help Initiative or other social service organizations, but through their families. It’s their aunts, it’s their cousins, it’s their parents and grandparents who reach out and allow them to come back home. But if these relatives are already overburdened and their homes overcrowded, then they can’t help. That means more people ending up on the street and a slower time getting back into a stable situation. 

 EZ :Do you feel at times as though your organization is bailing water out of a leaky boat?

 DF: Somewhat. We do what we can. But the hardest part is that people come to our community meals thinking they’re going to get help finding a place to stay that night. And they’ll ask, “Where can I go? What can I do?” We tell them that in Chicago they’re supposed to call 311. But 311 is overwhelmed. The 311 system is broken.

EZ: So someone comes to you and says, “I’m in crisis, I don’t have a place to stay. All I’ve got is the clothes on my back and in my knapsack. Where can I stay?” And if you direct them to 311, 311 is likely to say, in effect, “Sorry, the shelter beds are full. We can’t help you”? 

 DF: Pretty much. There isn’t a community-meal provider I’m aware of who uses 311. I know the city tells us to do that, but we know that’s not what works.  \

  We’re told that the average wait between when people call for help and when 311 can pick them up is 12 hours. And that sounds insane when you’re talking about people in crisis But it’s actually worse than that. I’ve spoken to emergency room personnel and people in other locations who’ve told me that 311 has arrived days later, not hours later, to pick people up. In one instance, a family was picked up from an emergency room three days after the 311 call. It’s nuts.

They’re absolutely overwhelmed, and it doesn’t work. Which means if someone comes into a meal and says they need to get into a shelter, we send them either to a police station or to the emergency room to sleep. In some instances providers give them passes to the CTA.

Again it’s nuts.

 EZ: So the people we see on the trains who are sleeping are often there because shelter providers have directed them there? The trains aren’t quiet, comfortable or particularly safe. They have no toilet facilities. But that’s the best you can do for them? I always assumed that those people were there because they preferred the train to shelters.

 DF: Nope. In fact there are police stations that have set aside floors for homeless people to sleep on. 

EZ: Do the police provide bed rolls or cots?

 DF:  I don’t know. I do know that we’ve had our folks go to police stations to see what’s going on and they see folks sleeping there.

EZ: It sounds like you’re not pointing the finger at the 311 system, particularly. That its failure is a symptom, not a cause

 DF: Yes. 311 has been challenged for years. But it’s only this year I’ve sensed the system is completely overwhelmed. All you’ve got to do is look around and see the number of people living outside to realize what’s going on.

EZ: Are any of the mayoral candidates talking about this problem in a constructive way?

 DF:   I haven’t heard anyone coming forward with their short term or long term solutions.

 EZ: What’s the estimate for the number of homeless people in Chicago?

 DF: It depends on who’s estimating. Estimates range anywhere from 8,000 to 65,000, depending on who’s counting and how they’re counting. Pretty soon we’re going to get the Point in Time Count — the PIT count — which is when we count the number of people in a set series of locations and in shelters. And that just happened last week for January. So we’ll know fairly soon. And that doesn’t give you any absolute number because , although you’re going to get a good sense of how many are in the shelters, those who are homeless and alone are likely to have hidden themselves away for safety.

        So that means there are always more people out there that are counted. The PIT count just gives you an indication of whether or not we’re going up or down. I will be really interested to see what’s going on with the encampments. Now the city keeps a list of different locations, encampments. And so as that becomes available, we’ll get a sense of both how many more encampments there are and where they are located. The PIT count is done once or twice a year but the only one I really pay attention to is the one in January because that’s when it’s cold. It’s been going up for the last I think three years.

But I think you’re going to find this year that there’s a pretty significant spike. And the reason I’m saying that is both what’s happening with the Homeless Management Information System numbers, but also what’s happening nationally in terms of other cities, other locations, and what’s happening with the housing numbers.

EZ: And where will that PIT number be posted? 

 DF: It’ll be at  Continuum of Care  after it’s released by HUD

 EZ: In a previous life you were chief of staff for former 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith, so you know how the city works. If you were running for mayor, what would you be proposing to alleviate this problem? 

 DF: Well, the first thing we have to do is get everyone inside who wants to be inside. So maybe you have a gym, maybe you have an auditorium, any space in which you can put cots, so that people don’t freeze. Nobody sleeps outside if they don’t want to.

The second thing that has to change is we have to get people inside and before trying to get their information and otherwise process them. Now it takes a considerable amount of time, sometimes hours to get the processing done before intake, because you’ve got to get somebody who’s free to do it. And then you send the van to pick the people up. 

 The final thing is this notion of trying to pick up people from where they call isn’t working. If a person seeking shelter calls from a street corner they say they’ll send the van there. But they often don’t  We have to create aggregate sites — emergency rooms, meal sites, wherever else homeless are congregating — and use those sites for scheduled pickups so providers like us will be able to say ” if you’re outside, go to this location at this time and you can get transported to 10, South Kedzie.Then you will be inside and then you will be processed, however long it takes. So those are some immediate things to do.

Yet it’s  important  to realize that these tent encampments communities that are often very supportive They’re maybe not the absolutely preferred community for the people who are in them, but they are groups of people who have banded together to make their lives easier.

 EZ:How should the financial resources be allocated to best deal with this issue?

 DF:  In the short term we need to move some of the money from the permanent supportive housing programs into creating shelters. I’m not saying you move away from the idea of housing first, but people have to get inside when it’s cold. And that has to be the first priority and that’s gonna take funding now. Other large cities in this country use their own corporate funds to do this. Chicago is the only large American city that doesn’t use its corporate budget to do some of this work, they use only federal pass through dollars. And that’s just not cutting it. The amount of money in Chicago spent on helping the homeless is far lower per-person than New York and LA.

           You’re not looking at a huge number of people, but you are looking at an expensive population to take care of. Because you’re going to have to subsidize it, and to provide the necessary support services.But the amount of money is not enormous. Some of this housing absolutely has a bad rap, because it’s poorly managed. And there’s definitely an issue in presenting these projects. And it’s one of the reasons why we have not been able to build ourselves out of this issue because there’s the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) effect and people don’t want it. there is some absolutely excellent ,well-managed supportive housing out there, if it serves this function, you don’t even know it’s there. So like anything else, there is a wide variety of how it’s done and how it’s done, who manages it and how they manage it is key to whether or not it can endure in communities. Having said that, that’s a hard thing to convince people of today, because even one bad building can have just a devastating effect on a block.

 We also need to look at how people actually get out of homelessness and spend our money accordingly. About 80% of the homeless are not helped by the formal system of aid. They don’t die, they don’t disappear, but they reconnect with family, they reconnect with friends, they get back inside, and they move forward with their lives. So they have moments of crisis, moments when they need help. But most often help comes from an informal system. So we need to support that informal system — the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, the people who step forward to offer a place to stay..But those family members are often stressed themselves with the high cost of rent, utilities and food and a lack of space. So we need to focus on aiding the people who make a difference, rather than focusing on building high cost, high maintenance housing projects. I mean, yes, we need some of those because there’s a core of people who aren’t ever going to reconnect with anybody. But for most people in this situation, that’s not the case.

 This fall, Continuum of Care, which manages these projects in the city got dinged by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development because HUD says from the time a homeless person is identified for placement and housing to the time that they are housed should be no more than 30 days. Seems like a long time, right? But it turns out in Chicago, it’s over 90 days. And so HUD told the city, that’s too long, and it’s way too long.

 I was in a conversation with some folks the other day, who said there remain over 1000 vacant housing units within the system that have still not been filled. And at the same time, you got people on the CTA and in tents.

 EZ: Where are these vacant units? And how can that be?

 DF: They’re spread out all over the city. But what happens is, in order to get into this housing, you enter into the Coordinated Entry System (CES). And the CES culls off the very top of people who need housing, there’s no way that it can satisfy all of them. There are 1000s of people on the list, and hundreds get placed. So those people then get identified to move into housing.

We were supposed to have a housing first policy — that is they get moved into housing, and then we go through the paperwork and the other things that need to happen in order to keep them in that housing. But that’s not happening, the paperwork and all that stuff is being dealt with beforehand. And there are significant delays — 90 days or more on average — in moving people into that housing.

So now go back to the shelter system and say, Well, you come into a shelter, it’s determined that you’re really going to need some help from the government from social service agencies to move out of that shelter. Well, even from the time you get identified as going to be moved into an apartment, it’s gonna be three months. So three months from February, March, April, May, before the average person occupying a shelter is moved out now. It’s way too long.

 EZ: Whose fault is that? Where are the resources needed to make those resources available.

 DF: Excellent question. And I would pose it to Continuum of Care. Ask them, “What’s going on here? Why are we in a crisis mode? Why are these folks not getting placed into housing?” I honestly don’t know, I don’t talk to them anymore.  

 EZ: Are you on the outs with them?

 DF: Well, you know, if I said yes, that would be reflective of a lot of service organizations in the city, who find them exceedingly bureaucratic and difficult to deal with and pretty much say “We do our thing. They do their.” But the thing they don’t do — that’s not happening — is extraordinarily important.

EZ:   The US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced on Feb, 2 that Chicago will get  $60 million as part of a national grant ” to address homelessness among people in unsheltered settings.” Will that make much of a dent?

DF: It’s  for Permanent Supportive Housing, not shelter beds. The immediate need is to get people inside when it gets too cold. On average over 1000 people a month show up in the database as newly homeless. That will continue, and it will continue to take time to process and help them, and absent more beds to flex up or down to accommodate that, the current situation continues.