BEDS helps individuals and families experiencing homelessness regain housing, but first they must enter our programs. Every day, those living outside need to focus on basic needs for water, food, and safety. They may not be aware of our services or how to access them. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we have expanded our Street Outreach program to ensure that we can connect people experiencing homelessness throughout our communities with housing and other services.
Living outdoors means constant weather exposure, malnutrition, risk of violence and sexual assault, and exposure to infectious diseases like the flu, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and COVID-19. Along with day-to-day stress, these factors can quickly create and/or exacerbate chronic health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma, as well as behavioral health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use. People experiencing homelessness cannot readily access health and behavioral healthcare, recover from illness or injury, or safely store medication. They live an average of 20 years less than the housed population.
We don’t know exactly. The best we can do is participate in an annual one-night Point in Time (PIT) count, where Suburban Cook County homeless organizations count people staying in homeless shelters and sleeping in public areas. PITs do not include people who are living in “doubled up” arrangements with family or friends or who stay in places outside of the PIT scope. In 2019, the Suburban Cook County PIT found 897 people experiencing literal homelessness, including 105 on the streets. Results from the 2020 PIT have not yet been released, and, due to COVID-19, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has exempted Cook County from conducting a 2021 PIT. Experts concur that the economic impact of COVID19 likely will increase rates of homelessness.
BEDS Street Outreach team visits each community in its Southwest Suburban Cook County service region twice each month. They visit soup kitchens, food pantries, libraries, parks, viaducts, forest preserves, and other places people experiencing homelessness stay. The team includes Manager of Emergency Services Mario Avila, Emergency Services Coordinator Zac Catrambone, and Outreach Worker Krista Edwards, as well as three clients with lived experiences of homelessness who play essential roles in finding and building relationships with people on the street.
Zac describes the team’s initial approach as “slow and non-threatening,” usually as simple as, “Hi, how’s it going? Do you need anything,” and Krista emphasizes how the team shows “respect for people’s space and time.” For those who seem interested, the team shares information about our services and essential supplies like socks, hats, gloves, hand warmers, blankets, snacks, and prepaid bus cards. They have even enrolled people in our programs and begun work with them to regain housing. At the same time, Robert, one of the team members with lived experience, adds that “some people don’t want to be fine right away.” For them, Krista describes how our work “lets them know we care and we’re there when they’re ready.”