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Illinois homelessness chief says new state funds will produce more shelter, affordable housing

Christine Haley is chief homelessness officer for Illinois
Lawrence Remiker
state of Illinois
Christine Haley is chief homelessness officer for Illinois

Christine Haley was appointed state homelessness chief in September 2021 after Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order creating the role. Haley leads the state’s efforts to decrease homelessness in Illinois, improve outcomes for people who experience homelessness and strengthen safety nets. She recently talked with NPR Illinois’ Maureen McKInney. This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation.

The governor launched several initiatives to work on the issue of homelessness. Can you speak to those and what funding is available?

In September of 2021, Governor Pritzker signed an executive order to fight homelessness. And that executive order creates three entities. First, it creates the interagency task force on homelessness, which is charged with understanding how we can align state resources and state strategies to address homelessness.

It includes the creation of the Community Advisory Council on Homelessness. And that's made up of community members, faith, community members, persons with lived experience of homelessness, those who have disabilities, community providers, and others, that provides guidance to the state on how to best operate homeless programs and manage strategy. And finally, it created the chief homelessness position that I hold, and it also helped create our office to prevent and end homelessness.

So the name of our plan is called Home Illinois. And its goal is to work towards ending homelessness in our state. And in this year, in our new program of Home Illinois, that included an increase of $85 million to be able to support people who are living doubled up with family and friends and those who are living outside.

Some of the projects that we support include more shelter. So we have more money in the Illinois Department of Human Services, emergency and transitional housing programs to support the expansion of the availability of shelter beds. We've invested in more prevention dollars, so that we can prevent families who may be having a housing crisis to losing their apartments, or providing some short term assistance to keep folks in their home. And then finally, and then it also includes money for more permanent housing resources, right to help support folks as they are moving from being in shelter to a permanent home of their own.

What about the migrant issue? Have those efforts been difficult for the state and has it caused resources to be pulled from other programs?

So our work in home Illinois is to ensure that all people have a safe and affordable place to call home. Right. So we really understand that if people who have been homeless in our communities for months, or years, or those folks who are in a housing crisis and have arrived in Illinois, recently, that our work and our goal is to understand how we're able to support all people who are having a housing crisis. And in many shelters across our state, we know that shelter providers are incredibly committed to be able to support all people that seek their help, including those who are newly arrived, and that we have funding that support all population.

So I wouldn't phrase it as that it's been pulled from one group to serve another. I think it's that our mission is really to see how we can make our crisis housing response system stronger for all people by investing in an all

And how does the need to address homelessness differ in different parts of the state, including urban, rural and small urban communities? Communities like Springfield?

Yeah, we know that in all over our state and communities all over our state, be that rural rural communities are urban and suburban communities, that there is homelessness in every community that we know. And that we do, though, want to understand what are the specific strategies that are needed to tailor the responses adequately and rural communities. At the end of the day, we know that folks need a safety net, right? So be that in Springfield to cater in, in parts of southern Illinois. And in Northern Illinois, we know that a safety net and adequate safety net so that when someone does have a housing crisis, that there's a resource for them on the other side is at the basis of prevention.

And then we also understand that for those households who do become homeless, that access to affordable housing, sometimes affordable housing with wraparound support, is needed to be able to help that family stay housed, which is our ultimate hope, in our communities that folks have that access and can stay housed. So we understand that in rural areas, that homelessness may look different, as far as being less, less visible to communities, right that if someone is living in an abandoned barn, or along a river bed, and away from where others are living, they might not be seen as those who may be in urban areas, and where it's more visible. But that doesn't mean that homelessness doesn't exist in those areas. So part of our jobs is understanding how in rural communities that there's more outreach and education so that folks do know when they do encounter a housing crisis, how to get help.

And what are some of the barriers the state faces, in terms of its goals on homelessness?

So I think one of our challenges is just around provider capacity, right, that we need more people interested in working in this field of work. So we need to understand that, you know, that really thinking about how more people might want to be involved in working in a shelter or working for a housing organization, and really thinking about how we can build the workforce, so that we can support more people there.

I think another thing is really understanding where we have the opportunity to welcome people who are experiencing homelessness and creating neighborhoods that are open to permanent housing, and or shelters for folks who are homeless. So I think that sometimes when homeless service providers are looking to open up a shelter or open up a permanent housing apartments for folks who are experiencing homelessness, that sometimes communities say no, that's not we don't want that type of housing in our neighborhood. I think that It is known as the not in my backyard or nimbyism, but that what we really do need is all communities that folks experiencing homelessness come from all walks of life.

And we need to make sure that we have available spaces and that neighborhoods can say, Yes, we welcome our neighbors. It's better to have our neighbors living in a safe and a safe home than living outside. So really thinking about how people can be welcoming. If there is a is a shelter or housing moving into your neighborhood

You may have information and how big the is homelessness population is in Illinois. Do you have an estimate?

Yes. So we estimate that about 120,000 people in Illinois experience homelessness. About 44,000 people each year experience literal homelessness, meaning living in a shelter or living outside or living in an abandoned building or a car. And then about 70-75,000 people live in, in doubled up situations – those who are temporarily living with family and friends. Some people might call that couchsurfing. So living with a friend, staying for a few days and moving to another friend, but not having your name on a lease in a place for you to be permanently a place to call home. So it's about 120,000 people in Illinois each year that experience homelessness.

And has that number been rising? Or is this not something that's been tracked accurately?

So we can look and track over time since 2005. In Illinois, we have been tracking the ways in which people who have been experiencing literal homelessness, so those who are living outside or living in places not meant for human habitation, and we've actually seen our numbers decrease from before the pandemic. And then now we are back at kind of where we were with pre-pandemic levels. I'd say that during the pandemic, the state of Illinois distributed over a billion dollars in rental assistance support during the pandemic to prevent a tsunami of people facing evictions and eviction court. So we understand that funding homeless prevention and funding that support is a key tool that we have to prevent an end homelessness.

And is it fair to say working on homelessness is a priority of the governor and the General Assembly?

Home Illinois is a priority for Governor Pritzker.Governor Pritzker included talking about home Illinois as one of the initiatives of our state's work and included that $85 million increase to homeless services programming. The Illinois General Assembly did include that funding in our state's fiscal year ’24 budget. And we are seeing the impact of more permanent supportive housing, more rapid rehousing units, more preventing people from becoming homeless through increased homeless prevention. There's so many ways in which we've been able to strengthen our safety net through the dedication and investments of Governor Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly.

I think that the important piece for us to understand is that homelessness is a solvable problem. This is something that we understand what the tools are to address homelessness, which is a strong safety net, and most importantly, safe and affordable housing. So as we are able to understand how to support our neighbors who are having a housing crisis, one helping to link them to resources. So, we at the state have invested in 211 as a way if there is a housing crisis to call 211 to understand what is available, how the resources are available to prevent folks from becoming homeless. So I think we understand what the tools are, in that we need to, want to work cooperatively with our neighbors, with our community members, with our local governments, state and federal government and partners to be able to end homelessness in our state. So it takes all of us.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.