New audit by inspector general lauds city outreach to homeless encampments

If Chicago voters and the City Council approve Mayor Brandon Johnson’s tiered plan to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales, the city will have $100 million in new money to combat homelessness every year.

Against that backdrop, a new report indicates at least one of the programs the Department of Family and Support Services already operates is spending city dollars wisely and with sensitivity.

In an audit released Wednesday, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg examined “Accelerated Moving Events,” which is when residents of homeless encampments “complete all the steps required” to secure housing and support services in one day.

Of the 238 residents of homeless encampments who attended those between Nov. 1, 2020 and May 31, 2022, 94% managed to secure housing. Even more encouraging was the long-term success rate: 187 of those residents — 78.6% — were still housed five months later.

Over the years, the city has periodically come under fire for hosing down and clearing homeless encampments without giving residents sufficient notice or taking the appropriate pains to preserve personal items left behind or reunite owners with those belongings.

The audit found just the opposite.

The Department of Family and Support Services, according to the audit, “did not permanently displace encampment residents from public spaces.” It also made “reasonable efforts to protect … portable personal possessions” and worked closely with Streets and Sanitation to provide the required seven days’ notice to residents of homeless encampments about upcoming monthly cleanings. Personal items that “may appear to be unattended” were marked in advance to “guard against accidental disposal,” the audit found.

A Department of Streets and Sanitation posting notifying of routine off-street cleaning in the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive taken on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

A Department of Streets and Sanitation notice posted in December 2019 about routine off-street cleaning scheduled in the Wilson Avenue viaduct, a frequent camping site for homeless people.

Witzburg openly acknowledged the programs she examined are “only a piece of the city’s response to homelessness.”

Nevertheless there are “lessons to learn as we continue to expand the city’s responses” to the burgeoning problem impacting so many American cities, she added.

“There are successes here to build on. We’ve seen really high success rates from these accelerated moving events. Those successes have persisted over time. People have secured housing and they’ve stayed in that housing. If we can build those events — if we can scale those up — we should expect to be able to serve more Chicagoans,” Witzburg said.

Family and Support Services is “doing really good work on the ground” with encampments residents and “building trust” with them so critical to convincing people to leave homeless encampments, the inspector general said.

“We went out and observed notices that are being posted, connections that are being made to connect people with services. Not all of these things are instantly scale-able. But, some of them are. And we should be looking to build on successes as we have more resources to devote to these problems,” Witzburg said.

“When the city follows through on what it says it will do — when it treats people with humanity and dignity and respect — we should expect a return on all of those investments in trust and legitimacy of city services.”

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road, Monday morning, Feb. 10, 2020.

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road in February 2020.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said it’s “great to see that an independent review” has verified the city’s success rate. But she’s not at all surprised.

“We had a pretty large encampment — over 40 people at times — at Touhy Park for about 18 months. And we worked with DFSS to do pretty intense outreach to residents of that encampment and had three of those Accelerated Moving Events over the course of that 18-month period, which was able to match, I think, 84 people with housing. And that was just in one park in my neighborhood,” Hadden said.

“Most of the residents — they’re not resistant to permanent housing. A lot of folks are resistant to the shelter system and the shelter offerings. … A lot of folks have been in the temporary shelters, the emergency shelters and they’ve had poor experiences. The emergency shelters aren’t necessarily meeting their needs. And what people want is actually this permanent, supportive housing.”

Hadden noted some of the people who waited in line to sign up for the Accelerated Moving Events then waited two to four months to be placed into housing.

“While they were offered temporary shelter in the meantime, most people prefer to stay living outside until their permanent housing is ready,” she said.

“Locating these places is difficult. With Bring Chicago Home and this dedicated revenue — in addition to funding to make sure we can pay for the units and pay for the [supportive] services — we also can build more housing or contribute to the construction of additional housing that can help to create more spaces for people.”

Housing Committee Chair Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) pointed to the city’s history of providing “no notification” before viaducts with homeless encampments were cleaned out.

“Belongings of people were taken away or they were hosed with power washes. All of that created an atmosphere and a climate of hostility and distrust. The city was mistreating homeless residents instead of finding solutions,” the chairman said.

“It’s great to see this reassurance by the Inspector General so that we can work toward getting consensus and bringing resources to create more housing. I’m glad that there is some good news around homelessness because it is a complex and really tragic issue.”

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