People living outside in the suburbs: Homeless census ensures they count

A barrage of fluffy flakes coated a team of Elgin police officers as they parked their squad cars behind a downtown tire shop. It would be the staging area for a once-a-year patrol into the land of the often forgotten.

Exploratory steps took the officers down a slick embankment. Then up onto level ground for a walk along frosted railroad tracks. No one was sure what they'd find with the temperature hitting a low of 13 degrees one night last week.

In past years, on frigid and snowy nights, similar patrols seeking the living instead found some who'd succumbed. Last year's count included three dead.

The patrol headed down another embankment and into the woods. Despite the snow, the path into Elgin's poorest neighborhood was visible. The residents are the people you might see sitting on a bench or warming their bones in a parking garage elevator. And most nights, most people would pass while trying not to see them. But tonight, the residents of Elgin's “Tent City” would be sought out and counted.

Agencies throughout the country will, or already have, duplicated the effort as part of an annual national census of homeless people. The count helps the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine funding to agencies that provide services like emergency housing and job training.

  In a heavy winter storm, Elgin police Lt. Rick Ciganek interviews a homeless person and fills in HUD paperwork during a census of homeless in the city. John Starks/

Agencies like Northwest Compass Inc. in Mount Prospect and Lake County will conduct their counts Wednesday night, when temperatures could drop to minus 26.

HUD disbursed $2.1 billion to homeless service agencies in the last funding cycle. About $109 million of that came to Illinois through the 20 umbrella organizations, known as continuums of care, in charge of advising HUD about how to spend the money.

The Aurora/Elgin/Kane County Continuum of Care received $1.77 million. That was an 8.8 percent increase over the preceding year, the largest funding increase in the state.

Heading into Elgin's count, agencies had no idea when funding information would come through. The reopening of the federal government after a monthlong shutdown allowed HUD officials to make a partial funding announcement over the weekend for agencies awaiting word on renewal grants. The Aurora/Elgin/Kane County continuum will receive its full expected funding. Dollars for new projects are unknown. HUD released no timetable for that announcement as another federal shutdown looms in a few weeks.

“A lot of the funding we receive is to sustain ongoing projects that we renew annually,” said Scott Berger, who oversees Kane County's homeless management information system. “For those of us at the end of the pipeline, we're still conducting the work of what is an extension of the federal government at the local level.”

  Elgin police Lt. Rick Ciganek and officer Scott Williams talk with a man who identified himself as Bryan, whom they met on the trail in Tent City as they interviewed homeless people for an annual census. John Starks/

James Harvey knows that work well. He represents the formerly homeless on the Aurora/Elgin/Kane County Continuum of Care Board. During the annual homeless count, he's shoulder to shoulder with the Elgin police patrolling through Tent City.

Harvey knows the people he will encounter are residents of Tent City by choice.

“In Los Angeles, you see homeless people in the streets,” Harvey said. “But here, people are proactive with the homeless. You can see that here tonight. If someone needs food, if someone needs shelter, it's out here.

“There's work. You can get it. So if someone isn't taking advantage of that, maybe that tells you they don't want the help. Some people like to drink and just sit. Some have issues with alcohol or drugs or mental health. There is plenty of help here to get a hand up, not a handout. But you can't make people accept that help.”

As Harvey and the police enter Tent City, the first living quarters they see, a mishmash of tarps and rope, is augmented by a side-view truck mirror tied to a tree for grooming. A sign tacked up at the entrance reads: “Hot Beer. Lousy Food. Bad Service. Welcome. Have A Nice Day.”

  The homeless people living in "Tent City" in Elgin say they choose to live there. Elgin police took a census of the population. John Starks/

As the police shout their presence, a voice comes back from inside the structure letting them know there are two occupants to add to the census - a husband and wife. The questions are the same for each person the police encounter: Are you OK? Do you need anything? Are you aware the shelters are open? How long have you been homeless? Do you have problems with drugs, alcohol or mental health?

The answers are echoed throughout Tent City.

“I've got my bases covered,” the voice tells police. “I always plan. We're fine.”

All the residents police encounter are between their late 30s and early 50s. They've all been homeless for more than a year, many of them off and on for more than three years. None admit to problems with drugs or alcohol, though several indicate they believe their neighbors have addictions. A few admit to other problems.

“Do I have mental illness?” chuckles a man who identifies himself as Christopher. “Come on, Lieutenant. You know I do. You know I do!”

  Hidden in the tangle of brush and trees, and under a blanket of fresh snow, one of several draped tarps in "Tent City" in Elgin is home to a person who wishes to remain anonymous. Elgin police took a census here of the city's homeless. John Starks/

Christopher tells police he's the father of two: a boy and a girl who are 3 and 4 years old. Police confirm no children are present.

The numbers for this year's homeless census will take several weeks to compile from the various agencies involved. Recent numbers show the local homeless population remains steady regardless of the services provided or what's happening with the economy.

In even years, the census counts homeless people only in agency shelters. Last year, the Aurora/Elgin/Kane County census counted 430 people. In odd-numbered years, the census includes non-sheltered homeless people, such as the residents of Tent City. In 2017, the local census counted 360 homeless people.

Berger said part of the reason for the steady count is the ease of traveling in and out of the Fox Valley.

“We are part of a dynamic metropolitan area,” Berger said. “Our area is on two interstate tollways that feed into and out of the metro area. There's an element of what we are dealing with that is very migratory.”

  There is no electricity in "Tent City," so Elgin police use flashlights to complete paperwork as they talk with Ruby, who lives there with her two dogs and prefers to call herself houseless. John Starks/

Leanne Deister-Goodwin's business is meeting that homeless need regardless of where the people come from. She is the executive director of the St. Charles-based Lazarus House. Last year, it provided more than 50,000 meals while housing about 46 people every night in emergency shelters and transitional living programs.

Aside from Kane County's homeless management information system, which tracks homeless people as they receive local services, Lazarus' programs are the No. 1 priority for funding in the continuum of care's annual application for HUD financing.

Deister-Goodwin said Lazarus House always plans for contingencies, including government shutdowns.

Grants or no grants, there will be homeless people throughout the suburbs, Deister-Goodwin said.

“People are usually surprised to learn the majority of our guests are employed,” she said. “Yes, losing a job might be what gets you here, but it's not always. Lots and lots of things happen to folks in their background before they ring our doorbell.

  The homes in "Tent City" are spread along a trail and most have a well-defined boundary. This one even has an outhouse. Elgin police conducted a homeless census Jan. 22 around midnight. John Starks/

“Mental illness is prevalent. That could mean depression or anxiety, but that can be serious. And then there's people who just want the autonomy and choose not to seek help through a shelter like ours. There's pride and the need for independence.”

Several of the elaborate living structures in Elgin's Tent City demonstrate that pride. There are patio-style sitting areas. Some have shelving units holding cans, bottles and tools. Bikes are the preferred form of transportation. One living area even has an outhouse of sorts complete with a hole covered by a toilet seat.

While exploring these areas, Elgin police encounter a woman who says her name is Ruby. She's traveling with an older man named Bryan.

“Hey, they want to know if we're a couple,” Bryan asks Ruby after a question from one of the officers.

“No!” Ruby replies.

Ruby is on her way to her living area to see her dogs. Two of them were recently stolen by someone Ruby says she tried to sell them to.

“They didn't want to give me money for them, and they knew they could just come here and take them when I wasn't around,” she says with a shrug. “I hope they are taking good care of them, and it's for the best.”

Ruby is known by police for having the “largest piece of riverfront real estate” in Tent City. Ruby smiles in acknowledgment. Her multi-tarp tent structure could house a number of people. Tonight, she's the only resident who will be counted, though she's not sure she likes the “homeless” label.

“I'm good,” she tells the officers. “I have everything I need. All of us out here, we're houseless. We're not homeless.”

Where do suburban homeless people live?

Suburban Cook County: 780

Aurora/Elgin/Kane County: 360

DuPage County: 331

Joliet/Bolingbrook/Will County: 282

Waukegan/North Chicago/Lake County: 228

McHenry County: 155

Subtotal: 2,136 homeless people in the suburbs

Chicago: 5,657

Total combined area homeless population: 7,793

Note: Counts are for 2017, the last year of a full census of homeless staying in shelters and those not in shelters.

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Where does money for homeless services go?

2017 HUD funding for Illinois Continuum of Care homeless service providersDuPage County: $4.7 millionJoliet/Bolingbrook/Will County: $4.08 millionSuburban Cook County: $2.08 millionWaukegan/North Chicago/Lake County: $2.06 millionAurora/Elgin/Kane County: $1.8 millionMcHenry County: $956,314Suburban subtotal: $15.68 millionChicago: $68.3 millionTotal area homeless funding: $83.9 millionSource: Kane County Office of Community Reinvestment

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