Mar 1, 2021
On February 9, a propane heater exploded in a homeless encampment in Chicago. In response, the fire department advised against providing homeless people with heaters.
One homeless advocate suggested giving gift cards to buy clothes or blankets instead—but then her frustration boiled over: “Is it the best option? No. Housing is the best option.... We’re in a cold-weather emergency where blankets and warm clothing alone aren’t going to be enough.”
During the so-called “good times” of 2018, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless counted 77,000 homeless people in the city. That only included people who came through shelters or had contact with homeless services. How many others never got services, lived in cars, or doubled up with a relative or friend?
Then the pandemic hit. Already in early May, when the city tested 1153 shelter residents, more than a quarter tested positive. Since then, outbreaks among the homeless have been common. In December, for instance, a West Side shelter reported half of its 130 residents tested positive.
In response, shelters have decreased bed capacity to implement social distancing. So there are fewer beds, while many more people face homelessness.
When the economy crashed, the CDC and city imposed an eviction ban—but landlords have many ways of getting around it: illegally changing the locks, cutting off electricity or water, or doing a phony repair.
And the virus made it riskier to welcome homeless friends or relatives into your home. This is especially true because most of Chicago’s homeless people still work—especially the kinds of low-wage jobs that put workers at risk of catching the disease, and potentially spreading it.
Encampments have proliferated under viaducts and overpasses. Homeless people ride the transit system, or gather in the airports and train stations. City libraries have been kept open for most of the pandemic—largely because if closed, homeless people would have that many fewer places to go. And of course, many end up in the county jail, or in a hospital.
The city has provided some homeless encampments with porta-potties and sinks. It’s begun vaccinating some of those staying and working at shelters. But in a Chicago winter, this is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
Every homeless person in Chicago could have a roof over their head tonight: thousands of offices and hotel rooms are sitting empty. Thousands of construction workers are unemployed. But in this capitalist society, housing is organized to maximize the profits of investors, not to keep people warm and give them a safe place to sleep.