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Homeless Pilot Program 'Didn't Reach Goal,' But Fight Isn't Over: DFSS Head

By Josh McGhee | August 16, 2016 12:06pm
 Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) spoke with Uptown residents about the Homeless Pilot Program Monday at Weiss Hospital.
Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) spoke with Uptown residents about the Homeless Pilot Program Monday at Weiss Hospital.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — When Mayor Rahm Emanuel nominated Lisa Morrison Butler to be Commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services last year, he said she'd be helping "quarterback some of the most critical items" on his agenda.

In Uptown, one of those "critical items" is unquestionably the area's homeless population.

At a community meeting Monday night, Butler battled with a bevy of dissenting views on homelessness in the neighborhood, and doubled down on her previously stated goal to house 75 people identified as "chronically homeless" through the Homeless Task Force Pilot Program.

"We need to be sensitive to both sides," she told the full house gathered at Weiss Hospital, 4646 N. Marine Dr. "I'm not talking about eviction. I'm talking about housing these individuals, because I don't believe they want to be on the street."

When the pilot program was launched at the end of April, Butler insisted the program would have teeth and tackle the problem head-on. Success would be housing the initial group of homeless from the viaducts in Uptown and using the lessons learned to house more people, she said.

But faith in the program seemed to dwindle after the task force only housed 18 people during the 60-90 day goal it set for itself.

Of the 75, 21 have now been housed and 11 have been added to the inactive list and are no longer in need of city assistance to gain housing, she said Monday.

"Obviously, I didn't reach my goal. ... I know that. Everyone in this room knows that. My boss knows that, and I've been hearing about it," Butler said.

Neither Butler nor Ald. James Cappleman (46th) have given up on the program though, which plans to house the rest of the people on the list by November, they said. The two have been in constant contact and talk via cell phone about twice a month, Butler said.

To start the meeting, the pair admitted the topic was "complex" and that a conversation about the topic was bound to be "controversial."

Everyone seems to have a solution for homelessness, but often those solutions conflict with other solutions, Cappleman said.

"It's my hope that the community of Uptown can show the rest of the world how to make it work," he said.

While Butler reiterated the program was working, Uptown residents offered their own solutions, which included "fencing off" the viaducts or ticketing those living on the streets. But Butler warned that without securing housing for relocated homeless individuals, moving them is a short-sighted solution. Criminalizing homelessness, she said, reduces trust and leads to lawsuits.

Some residents also argued that the viaducts are unsafe for them when people are camped there, but Butler noted that an uptick in assaults or attacks in the area has not been reported.

Butler warned that the pilot program wouldn't completely clear the viaducts, especially as populations at these "Tent Cities" continues to grow. But she pointed to the neighborhood's Homeless Veterans initiative as an example of proof that dedicated funding can curb the population in these encampments.

While funding for the 75-person housing pilot program wasn't baked into in the budget this year, it will be built into the budget for the next fiscal year, Butler said, which she hopes will help ensure the housing effort meets its future goals to address homelessness citywide.

Ben Binder-Markey, 30, who moved to Uptown in 2009, said he has seen the camps continue to grow over the last 7 years. He went to the meeting Monday to get a better understanding on why, and what can be done, he said.

"After coming here, I do feel better. It's good to hear something is being done," he said. "I thought the commissioner handled it perfectly. She listened to everyone's prespective... Everyone had strong emotions on either side."

Binder-Markey believed most of the controversy stems from "visibility," but said his main concern was cleanliness under the viaducts, he said.

"I don't have a problem with people living there, but I think neighbors are concerned with the trash," he said. "I'm glad they're taking on such a big problem and monumental task."

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