Monday, May 7, 2012

American homeless folks in action – a close-up of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

At the end of the lobby day in Springfield, April 2012
In April 2012, I spent three weeks with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) as part of a professional development program. CCH organizes and advocates to prevent and end homelessness in Illinois, USA.

The coalition was established in 1980 by service providers and charities. The organization since then has pushed for several legislative proposals, making an impact on policy-making around housing and homelessness. To put significant pressure on the decision-makers, CCH, in cooperation with shelters, mobilizes homeless people, and builds the base of their allies. Proposals for legislative changes and ordinances, put forward by CCH, are thus justified in a way by participating homeless people, or, if you like, the organization looks for legal solutions for the demands formulated by homeless people.

The main recipe for the elimination and the prevention of homelessness is just the same in Chicago as in Budapest: folks need sufficient affordable housing. For this reason, CCH, in cooperation with other civil society organizations, reviewed Chicago’s budget and identified potential funding streams to dedicate for affordable housing. From a variety of funding sources, the so-called tax increment financing (TIF) proved to be the best proposal. TIF is a public financing method that utilizes increased tax income for subsidizing community improvement projects. Infrastructural investments result in an increase in the value of the real estate in the neighborhood, which generates additional revenues for the city government. Based on the directives of TIF, this revenue increase should be spent on redevelopment or infrastructure projects, e.g., affordable housing. CCH research showed that the city spends only four percent of its annual TIF fund on affordable housing, whereas wealthy corporations snatch the subsidies and use it to rehabilitate their offices in the downtown area. This contradicts the original purposes of TIF as this funding stream should be spent on the rehabilitation of underdeveloped neighborhoods.

Based on the results of the CCH research, the Sweet Home Chicago campaign began in 2009. A coalition of 11 organizations was formed and demanded that 20 percent of the TIF funds (almost $100 million) be allocated to affordable housing. The coalition also revealed the profits of the corporations which benefit from the TIF, and their chief officers’ high salaries. The campaign resulted in an ordinance which the city council enacted in 2011: developers of vacant multi-unit rental housing (which can be vacant due to foreclosures) can apply for TIF funds for 30 to 50 percent of the purchase/rehabilitation costs. To meet these requirements, developers must rent 30 to 50 percent of units to low-income households (in 2011, annual income of no more than $37,700 for a family of four – in comparison, in 2011, the poverty guideline was a total yearly income of $22,350 for a family of four). As a result of this, gentrification can be slowed down for a while, i.e., housing can remain affordable for low-income people in neighborhoods where infrastructural development results in an increase in the value of the real estate.

CCH also campaigns against state budget cuts to housing programs and to services for homeless people. CCH, as a member of the Responsible Budget Coalition of 270 organizations, managed to prevent cuts on emergency shelters and transitional housing. At the Illinois General Assembly, more than 100 homeless people demonstrated against the planned 52 per cent budget cut. The General Assembly, however, is planning a 52 per cent budget cut again this year (2012), so a couple of weeks earlier the group protested again in Springfield, in the capital of Illinois.

The organization, furthermore, provides homeless and unaccompanied youth with legal aid, advocates for the decriminalization of prostitutes, promotes the re-entry of ex-felons, supports policies and programs supporting homeless youth, and pushes for the increase in living wage and job creation. In 2010, the Put Illinois to Work campaign resulted in more than 27,300 jobs by using federal stimulus funds. When CCH recognized that the State of Illinois does not have a concrete program on how to use major part of the $300 million, the organization submitted a plan for a subsidized employment program of homeless people. The plan was finally accepted by the governor, and the employment program was implemented by a professional company.

Homeless people take an active part in the operation of CCH. Formerly homeless people, former felons or survivors of prostitution sit on the board or planning committees, or are employed as staff members. CCH, in cooperation with shelters, mobilizes homeless people, who participate in their demonstrations. In cooperation with social workers (but not necessarily with their participation) community organizers hold regular programs in shelters and recruit supporters for their campaigns. The organization regularly holds a writing workshop (Horizons Creative Writing Outreach) where participants discuss pieces of literature or write their own pieces. In the framework of the Speakers Bureau, homeless folks tell people their stories, and thus support with their own experiences what is on the agenda of the organization. Members of the Speakers Bureau visit schools, universities, religious and civic groups, and builds the outer base of allies. As a result of the speakers, seven chapters have been established in different universities and colleges in support of homeless people.

Read it in Hungarian.

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