Nearly 70 Homeless Individuals Receive Housing During Event at Harbor Light

Jun 28, 2021

It would have been easy to miss the magnitude of what was happening in The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center gym during a recent three-day event. On either side of a line of tables, people sat in folding chairs, talking and filling out forms. A few more people sat patiently waiting their turn while sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups. It was all very quiet and mundane . . . yet completely life-changing.

Housing in a Hurry

This Accelerated Moving Event was, quite simply, “moving people from street living and homeless encampments to housing,” said Richard Vargas, the Director of Community Social Services at The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center.

Unfortunately, the process of helping a housing insecure person find a home is usually anything but simple. People without an address have a hard time obtaining the necessary identification to fill out an application for an apartment, if a landlord will even give them the time of day. Programs and subsidies exist to help, but that requires knowing what you qualify for and navigating that often-complicated process – often without a computer or a phone.

A consortium of housing programs, organized by All Chicago and the Chicago Continuum of Care, developed the Expedited Housing Initiative to simplify and speed up this process, especially during the pandemic when those experiencing homelessness have been among the most likely to catch and potentially spread the virus. At these Accelerated Moving Events throughout the past year, more than 800 people living on the streets or in encampments or shelters have been placed in an apartment.

The organizers were familiar with The Salvation Army’s work with homeless communities, especially our Mobile Outreach Team, which makes stops at 25 locations of need throughout the City of Chicago every day, offering a meal and access to long-term assistance. For days leading up to the event, this team identified individuals interested in this program, and then brought them to the event on their scheduled day.

The Power of an Address

Eduardo was one of those people. He’s been living in a tent on the street for two years. When he lost his construction job after his boss died suddenly, he only had enough for two months of his rent. When Eduardo couldn’t find a new job, after a short grace period, his landlord evicted him. “It’s dangerous on the street,” Eduardo said. “You have nothing to protect you but some plastic.” As if living in a rat-infested place wasn’t bad enough, he said, “A lot of people hate us and come destroy our stuff.”

Despite failed offers of help from others in the past, Eduardo remained hopeful about this event. “I don’t care where they put me,” he said. “I want to be able to look for work and most places need an address.” He added that he’s eager to be able to shower and eat right on a regular basis.   

Andrew Ward, Homeless Services Supervisor for The Salvation Army, said people like Eduardo are most effective in drumming up interest among the others living on the street or in an encampment. “When we take them back to the encampment at the end of the day, they tell others about the event,” Andrew said. “They’re not just a name on a list. They’ve seen photos of the apartment they’ll be placed in. They have details about the follow-up.” Andrew and his team have seen the population decrease at the encampments since these events started last October. “Some have only a quarter of the people there now.”

Set Up to Succeed

The success of these events isn’t just due to the expedited process, it’s also the wrap-around services the clients are offered. Rent for each apartment is subsidized for a year, and clients meet with caseworkers regularly throughout that year to help them with finances, employment, and other means of becoming self-sufficient. Those without a phone are given one for up to 12 months.

Attendees of the event also met with Angel Simmons, from Chicago Furniture Bank, who matched them with an allotment of free beds, dressers, and other needed items. She received resounding gratitude from the clients. “They say, ‘You guys are a big help,’ or ‘You made my day,’” she said. “It’s a blessing to get to help people.”

This gratitude was felt by all the caseworkers at the event. Oscar, a housing liaison, said that the day before a woman who got placed in an apartment with her 18-year-old son started crying because she was so happy. “Many of them haven’t had a unit in years,” he said.

Drew, another intake worker, described most of the clients as “hopeful, grateful, and relieved.” He said he hopes the Accelerated Moving Event is putting the clients in a position to win. He said he tells them, “We’re putting you in a position so that when this project ends, you are able to sustain your housing.”

Over the three-day event at the Harbor Light Center, nearly 70 individuals and families that The Salvation Army Mobile Outreach team brought in received housing. One of them, a woman who said to call her Ms. Smith, said, “I’m grateful to God for this event. It’s another chance at life.”

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