How to Help Chicago’s Homeless Addicts and Mentally Ill

May 24, 2024

The first step to solving part of homelessness begins with treatment

Walking around Chicago, one can see the rise in homeless. For those who ride a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train, it is not unusual to see a topless woman, a homeless man mumbling out loud, or a beggar in rags.

As homelessness has grown in Chicago, homeless encampments have mushroomed throughout the city, often in public spaces such as parks or under viaducts. The formation of untidy shantytowns, as the encampments have expanded, they have come to include improvised homes constructed of plywood or crude shelters manufactured from cardboard or discarded furniture. Around these homeless encampments, unfortunately, vagrants have brought with them varying forms of public disturbances ranging from abuse of drugs or alcohol, open sex and onanism, public defecation, and noise.

An unsettling of glimpse of Chicago’s homelessness crisis, Mayor Brandon Johnson ran on a platform of addressing affordable housing and pledged to build more public and affordable housing to curb street camping. To fulfill his goal of creating more affordable housing, Johnson committed himself to securing passage of Bring Chicago Home (BCH). A ballot measure which housing activists had long endorsed, the measure would have raised $100 million to address homelessness.

Nevertheless, when the initiative was defeated in March, the mayor countered with an alternative, a $1.25 billion Housing and Economic Development Bond. Under the five-year plan, Chicago’s Department of Housing (DOH) would receive $660 million in funding for affordable rental property, homeownership single-room occupancy structures.

Depending on who you ask, the number of homeless in Chicago varies. To hear Mayor Brandon Johnson tell it, some 68,000 are counted as experiencing homelessness. Often parroting the mayor’s numbers, the Chicago Teachers Union is swift to claim 15,000 of students enrolled in Chicago schools are unhoused. However, statistics compiled in 2023 by the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services placed the number of those experiencing homelessness at 6,139. Similarly, a report delivered to Congress in 2023 found the number of homeless statewide at 7,902, a majority of whom live in Chicago.

While the precise number of homeless in Chicago or what meets the definition of homelessness has stimulated public discussion and handwringing, lost amid this debate is homeless who suffer from either addiction or mental illness. According to a 2019 California Policy Lab study, an astounding 78 percent of homeless reported a mental health condition and 75 percent acknowledged a drug or alcohol dependency. Among the sample surveyed who were living in a shelter, 50 percent were revealed to be suffering from mental illness and 13 percent with a substance addiction.

While Johnson should be commended for his attention to the homeless in Chicago, instead of concentrating his efforts on chiefly housing the homeless, the focal point of his policy prescriptions to contend with homelessness should be on treating addiction and mental illness.

To help those who struggle with hopeless addictions to alcohol or drugs to mend will require Mayor Johnson to retreat from the past policy of “Housing First” to “Treatment First.” The dominant homelessness policy in America, under “Housing First,” Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policy prioritizes moving persistently homeless persons from the streets and into permanent housing subsidized by the government. The wisdom behind “Housing First,” however, is flawed: It has contributed to the homelessness problem. Though the architects of “Housing First” consider it a legitimate solution to homelessness, the program does not impose the necessary conditions of sobriety, employment or enrollment in addiction or treatment for mental health disorders to qualify for housing. A misguided policy, while “Housing First” does fulfill the need for shelter for those experiencing homelessness, it prolongs the agony addicts and the mentally ill bear.

More than a decade ago, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered six of Chicago’s public mental health facilities in an effort to close a yawning $369 million hole in the city budget. A terrible miscalculation, Emanuel’s decision to fold public mental-health facilities left countless mentally ill patients without any alternative for care and to aimlessly wander Chicago’s streets.

Over the past decade, a gradual recognition government must work in collaboration with the voluntary sector to provide a multi-agency response to homelessness has burgeoned and upon entering office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot did take steps to make treatment more accessible for the mentally ill and addicted. Though Ms. Lightfoot never fulfilled her promise to reopen mental health clinics, she did expand a range of treatment options by partnering with community clinics and nonprofits. While Mayor Johnson did commit to reopening clinics, his promise to resume operating only two public clinics fails to meet the need for assisting homeless addicts and the mentally ill.

With the shortage of city-run facilities acute, Mayor Johnson should proceed with Lightfoot’s plan to broaden a network of affiliated clinics offering mental health services to the mentally ill and addicted. Through the City of Chicago Family & Support Services and Department of Public Health, Chicago maintains relationships with mental health and addiction clinics throughout Chicago and suburban Cook County. Garfield Park Hospital, Riveredge Hospital Montrose Behavioral Health, and Rosecrance, for example, all work jointly with Chicago to treat mental illness or addiction.

Mr. Johnson should use housing as leverage and could also resort to the force of law to oblige mentally ill and addicted individuals into in-patient treatment programs. While legal questions surround Mayor Johnson availing himself of the law to compel addicts and the mentally ill into treatment programs, enforcing hospital stays for mentally ill and addicts is good policy and has survived court challenges. The court understands addicts and the mentally ill are individuals who have lost their cognitive ability and near complete control over judgment and decision making.

It is estimated 6,100 are chronically homeless in Chicago. Mental health experts say as many as 25 percent of the mentally ill suffer from schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder. Residents of Chicago grasp the mentally ill and addicted deserve our sympathy and compassion. Residents of Chicago also know indifference to the plight of the addicted and mentally ill allows the sick to die on the streets.

Mayor Johnson pledged to reopen mental health clinics. Johnson’s vow to open only two facilities underestimates the seriousness of addiction and mental illness among the homeless. If Mayor Johnson can find $370 million in assistance for illegals in Chicago, he should be able to locate sufficient funding to meet the needs of those who suffer from the ravages of addiction or mental illness.

If the mayor intends to make good on his campaign promises to house the homeless, he should start with treatment for those who suffer severe mental illness or chronic substance abuse, for a mental-health hospital stay could turn a life around.

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