Dozing off on the El might not seem like a dangerous idea. But for 43-year-old Frederick Springer, the decision to grab some shut-eye on CTA’s Blue Line almost cost him his life.
“I was sleeping good and the next thing I know, I feel something around my neck squeezing tighter and tighter,” Springer said. “When I woke up, my eyes were bulging out of my head.”
Springer said a group of teenagers nearly choked him to death, simply because he was homeless.
“When their stop came, they finally let me go,” he said. “But they all ran away laughing at me.”
The Chicago native, who has been living on the streets since November, said unprovoked abuse of this kind happens all the time.
“A group of boys once peed in a cup and threw it on me,” Springer said. “These young kids ride on the El at night just to beat up the homeless and mess with them.”
Unfortunately for Springer, dodging the late-night assaults hasn’t been easy. In the past five months, he said he’s been unable to find a place of refuge, such as a homeless shelter.
He said he tried for months to get into Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop, but has given up after being turned away several times.
“PGM does not treat the homeless right,” Springer said. “They will keep you out if it’s the middle of the night and the weather is zero degrees. There are so many
people freezing out here.”
Calls to the Pacific Garden Mission were not returned.
But city data show stories like Springer’s are becoming more common.
According to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, Chicago’s homeless population jumped 5 percent between 2007 and 2009, from 5,922 to 6,240. The troubling trend continued over the next two years, climbing another 6 percent to 6,638 in 2011.
One major reason for the rise in homelessness is a lack of turnover at shelters, according to shelter coordinators citywide.
A significant increase in the average amount of time a person remained homeless over the last few years is to blame for the decreased turnover, according to Erin Ryan, the executive director of Lincoln Park Community Shelter.
The Lincoln Park shelter serves as a transitional shelter, meaning its inhabitants are homeless for a substantial period of time before moving in.
According to Ryan’s records, the people currently living in her shelter were homeless for an average of one year before arriving. That’s up 20 percent from 2008, when the average stood at 10 months, and up 50 percent from 2006, when the average was eight months.
Ryan said the economic downturn over the last few years has made it difficult for people to get back into working world, even when they finally find a place of refuge.
Even more troubling she said, is that the average length of stay in the Lincoln Park shelter has more than doubled over the last four years. People spent an average of 88 days in 2008, but today’s average sits at six months.
“Fewer people are moving out, which means fewer people are moving in,” Ryan said. “So more people are stuck at emergency shelters or on the streets, because they can’t get into a program like ours.
“The whole process is slowing down and it’s causing more people’s health to fail. By the time we get people walking through our doors, they are suffering from chronic health problems,” she said.
The story is similar at Clara’s House in Englewood.
While the typical length of stay is 120 days at the South Side shelter, founder and president Clara Kirk said she’s been handing out extensions more frequently over the last few years
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase,” Kirk said. “If they don’t have anywhere to go, we don’t put them in the street.”
Despite the poor economy, Kirk said the neighborhood has rallied together to meet the rise in homelessness.
“I love Englewood,” Kirk said. “We’ve survived four years with no money and no grants — just donations. There is some good going on.”
The situation on the Lower West Side of Chicago is not much different.
Israel Vargas, executive director of the San Jose Obrero Mission in Pilsen, said he has also seen a substantial increase in the average length of time spent by the homeless at both the men’s and women’s shelters.
But instead of blaming the economy for the upsurge, Vargas said the city of Chicago must tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis before it can hope to shorten the amount of time people spend in shelters.
“Chicago does not have affordable housing – period,” Vargas said. “Taking a family of three that is only making $500 a month and placing them into an appropriate apartment for the whole family should be considered affordable housing. There’s no such thing here.”
Neil Donovan, the executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the affordable housing crisis is not just an issue in Chicago, but it’s affecting the homeless all over the country.
“There’s been no administration in the last 30 years that’s done enough,” Donovan said. “President Reagan took a knife to the affordable housing budget, but I don’t think there’s been any response since then to repair the damage done.”
Donovan said that the U.S. needs about 500,000 affordable housing units to meet the needs of those struggling to stay off the streets.
“We have about 50,000 units of housing right now,” he said. “Back in 1980, we had 350,000 units. So we definitely have the capacity to build that amount of
While Donovan said the facts on affordable housing are clear, inconsistencies in fact gathering make it difficult to assess if the increase in average length of stay in Chicago shelters is on par with the national trends.
Yet statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggest people across the nation are remaining homeless longer as well.
From 2007 to 2010, the average length of stay in transitional housing – shelters like the ones mentioned in Chicago – has also risen.
In 2007, individuals lived in shelters for an average of 130 days. By 2010, that number swelled to 142 days — a 9 percent increase.
Likewise, families spent an average of 174 days living in transitional housing in 2007. That average jumped to 191 days, or nearly 10 percent by 2010.
Donovan said until the federal and state governments come together to tackle the issue, people like Frederick Springer will continue to fight for their lives on the streets.
“Economically, we could do it,” he said. “It would cost about $10.2 billion a year for the next five years to build our way out of this problem.”