Homeless count takes volunteers to some unexpected spots

At 8 p.m. on a chilly night last week, enthusiastic volunteers talked and joked with each other, drank coffee and snacked on chili and crackers while they waited for some unusual instructions.

They were about to go out on the streets of Chicago and count the number of homeless. Count them. Literally. 

It's part of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement for all cities seeking federal funding for homeless programs to conduct a biannual "Point In Time" count. 

More than 400 volunteers from the community and various agencies, including the Chicago Transit Authority and the city Park District, were involved. The task was managed by the city Department of Family and Support Services (FSS), after almost seven months of preparation. 

"The count was a coordinated effort that could not have been possible without the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and the assistance of numerous partnering agencies," says Debbie Janiszewski, director of grants research and planning. "It was a testament to a citywide volunteer spirit and service commitment. We look forward to the results."

The results are expected in the spring, as FSS now begins the process of compiling and analyzing the collected data. 

While officials at shelters around the city counted the individuals at their respective facilities, volunteers geared up at 10 S. Kedzie to begin the process of counting the homeless on the streets. 

Ben Alonzo, director of emergency services at FSS, and Chandra Libby, director of homeless outreach and prevention for FSS, were assigned various "hot spots," starting at the Jefferson Park train station. 

Under bridges along the expressway, Alonzo and Libby stopped and got out of the car.

"Hello?" Alonzo calls. Usually, there was no response. If there was, Alonzo would ask if the individual wanted to go to a shelter. None of them said yes.

Each time, Alonzo and Libby returned to the car and recorded the tally.

While most of the homeless were unaware that they were being counted, 10 percent were approached and asked to complete a HUD survey which included questions concerning how they became homeless, had they ever been in jail and had they ever done drugs.

Sharon Ryan, 30, who currently resides at Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House, a transitional living facility for adult men and women with HIV/AIDS, completed one of the surveys. 

Sharon Ryan, 30, who completed one of the HUD surveys during the mandatory homeless count on Jan. 27. / By Justin Goh

After becoming addicted to drugs at 18, Ryan dropped out of college and, for a time, had an office job. 

"I held on to two lives,” Ryan says. “A lot of people didn't know I was getting high. Then it unraveled." 

By age 25, Ryan was living on the streets and sleeping in parks and doorways. "A lot of times, you don't sleep at all," she says. "You're out and getting high."

It wasn't until halfway through a six-month jail term for possession of drugs and shoplifting that Ryan says she simply decided to quit. Unlike before, she didn't want to celebrate with drugs when she was released.  "There was nothing to celebrate," she says. 

Sober now for 15-½ months, Ryan remembers her time on the streets. "People look down on the homeless because they are typically drug addicts or alcoholics and I was, but I met of a lot of people who weren't," she says.  

Karl Miller, 44, also at Bonaventure House, is one of the homeless who wasn't a drug addict. After losing his job as a department supervisor at a Home Depot in 2004, Miller had already been sober for over 10 years. 

Karl Miller, 44, a Bonaventure House resident who participated in the homeless county on Jan. 27, says he is not taking his improved health for granted. / By Justin Goh

An entrepreneur at heart, Miller continued to run his own painting business while staying at various friends' houses.

But, in 2007, when his health began to drastically decline and he learned he was HIV-positive, Miller could no longer keep up the pace.  He moved into Bonaventure House in November of 2007.

Now, with his health improved, Miller is earning a college degree at Harold Washington and considering a career in urban planning.

"I look at this as a chance to be a stronger advocate. I recognize my blessings and I have to be an advocate," Miller says. 

According to HUD guidelines, a person is considered homeless if he or she is either in a shelter or on the streets. Individuals who "double up" in apartments or homes with others, as Miller did, are not considered homeless by HUD.      

Ryan herself never went to a traditional homeless shelter when she was on the streets, explaining that it was common to stay "near your drugs." If it was cold, she says, "You would stay with people you know, fellow drug users."

When asked how she thinks federal funding for homelessness should be used, Ryan stressed that the focus should be on the cause. "The effect (of drug use) is homelessness, but there is always a cause.  The cause has to be addressed.  The major issues have to be dealt with first to address the homelessness."

While Alonzo and Libby and the rest of the volunteers counted the homeless on Jan. 27, Ryan and Miller were counted at Bonaventure House.

Still, they both acknowledge that life is very different at Bonaventure than on the streets.

"(Living on the streets) is a dirty, dirty world," Ryan says. "I don't want to look back.  I just want to look forward. I want to start over, leave the past where it is and move on. I just want to become a normal person again."