[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
I began my academic research on suburban homelessness almost a year ago, but my practical experience began when I was fourteen. My parents’ business closed, and that was followed by several economic and health crises, leaving us first bouncing from one relative’s home to another, then waiting to see if the tips from my mother’s job waitressing would give us enough money to get a hotel room for the night. At one point we managed to scrape together enough money to get a weekly motel room which managed to give us some stability, but also drained us of any chance to save for a security deposit on an apartment.
Homelessness is difficult to deal with, period. Many aspects are universal, like the frustration of trying to find work or enroll children in school without a permanent address or trying to feed yourself and your family with a couple of dollars a day and no kitchen. You live with a unique type of anxiety I can only describe as a constant combination of homesickness, terror, and embarrassment.
Suburban homelessness has its own set of challenges. Suburbs often lack public transportation, shelters, and government assistance agencies. By far the largest hurdle the suburban homeless have to overcome is that they are not supposed to exist. For families and individuals facing homelessness in suburbia, this lack of resources and even demographics can bring about feelings of isolation and breed a culture of secrecy. Where do you go and who do you ask for help when you are not even supposed to be there?
The Chicago area has many organizations working to make suburban homelessness more visible and offering services to a population that now includes many people newly homeless due to the recession. The Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County is the lead agency for Cook County’s Continuum of Care (CoC), which coordinates the homeless assistance programs for Cook County (with the exception of Chicago and Evanston, which have their own CoCs). CoCs began in 1995, when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) required communities to submit a single application for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. 
One of the larger efforts of the Alliance is its bi-annual Homeless Count, during which over 150 volunteers spend five hours counting homeless individuals and families within the 310 square miles that make up suburban Cook County. The Count is required of all CoCs in order to retain HUD funding. Its purpose is to establish a baseline for tracking progress while increasing public awareness of homelessness in communities, planning and implementing effective services, and preserving federal funding for these services.
The HUD definition of homelessness does not include individuals and families living in motels, or “doubled-up”—living with other families. Suburban homeless families also go to great lengths to avoid living in shelters or on the street. The numbers are thus likely severely undercounted.
The last Count was performed on January 22, 2009. The Alliance found that the suburban homeless population in Cook County had decreased from 1,237 in 2007 to 1,190 in 2009. Unfortunately, this decrease may be short-lived. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 1.5 million more Americans will become homeless in the next two years as a result of the recession. Jessica Alesky, an intern with the Alliance, told me that numbers “generally lag the economy by 12-18 months.”
Organizations are already seeing a change in their service population. Joyce Hothan, Executive Director of Bridge Communities, Inc. in Glen Ellyn, said, “Before, we traditionally worked with families at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, people who were a paycheck away from a major event. With the housing crisis, we are now seeing an increase in what you would think of as more middle class.”
Bridge Communities, Inc. is a DuPage County non-profit that provides transitional housing. Residents of the 14 buildings stay for an average of two years, during which they are given life skills training, career assessment, and assorted job and educational assistance. The organization is also known for hosting an annual “Sleep Out Saturday” when 1,500 community members spend the night in cars, tents, and boxes in parking lots, parks, and backyards to raise awareness of family homelessness.
Homeowners are not the only ones affected by the housing crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about 40% of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters. Hothan says that Bridge Communities are receiving calls from eviction courts. “With families living in apartments, a lost job means you lose the apartment. We are probably just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Without aid, it took my family five years in a motel to save enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent. We had come close many times but illness or car repair (indispensable for employment in the suburbs) inevitably arose, wiping out our meager savings and putting us back where we started.
As media accounts of suburban homeless families increase and I see my family’s story replaying itself across the nation, I find myself looking for a silver lining. The only one I can find is that suburban homelessness may become a problem that is too large to ignore. Activist organizations like The National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness may be able to mobilize legislation that would expand the HUD homeless definition and thereby expand the numbers of families and individuals who can receive aid, shortening and decreasing the severity of their homelessness.
- M. Burt et al., Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People (Washington, DC: US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2002).
- Rebecca Hendrick and Karen Mossberger, Uneven Capacity and Delivery of Human Services in the Chicago Suburbs: The Role of Townships and Municipalities,” University of Illinois at Chicago, 2009.