O’Hare International Airport and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have addressed the growing population of homeless people taking refuge in the airport’s terminals each night.
At a news conference Wednesday, Lightfoot was asked about a Fox News segment on homelessness at Chicago airports, in which Tucker Carlson interviewed Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, a frequent Lightfoot critic.
“The fact of the matter is, we have taken and will continue to take the steps that are necessary to move people out of the airports,” Lightfoot said. “The airports are a very different place than on the street, under an underpass. It’s a secure location, and the message is clear from me to the Department of Aviation, the Police Department up there.
“We absolutely fundamentally cannot have people sleeping in our airports who are homeless. That is unacceptable. We are going to continue, within the bounds of the law, to do what is necessary to provide those folks with support but elsewhere. They can’t be in our airports.”
The Tribune first reported on the situation at O’Hare in January, sharing the story of 77-year-old Norbert Pikula, one of the many homeless people who spend their nights at one of the country’s busiest airports.
The airport’s statement comes as social media exploded with comments from people who say the issue reflects poorly on Lightfoot’s leadership and others who demand more humane treatment for homeless individuals.
“O’Hare International Airport continues to make significant investments in homelessness services at the nation’s second busiest airport to ensure round-the-clock outreach and mental health services are available to the airport’s unsheltered population,” the airport said in a Twitter post on Thursday.
The airport’s next tweet thanked social workers, the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services and first responders such as Chicago police and firefighters.
“Working together, the O’Hare community will continue to treat unsheltered individuals with the dignity they deserve, and we remain committed to doing our part to aid in confronting one of society’s greatest challenges,” the Twitter thread concluded.
Lopez shared a tweet Thursday saying he ran into a woman known as “Wheelchair Amy” at the airport Wednesday night. The alderman, who considered a run against Lightfoot for mayor this cycle and has endorsed one of her opponents, Willie Wilson, said Lightfoot continues to ignore the homeless people spending their nights at O’Hare.
While sheltering at the airport isn’t new, the steadily increasing number of people doing it is, said Jessica Dubuar, director of health and specialty services at Haymarket Center. The center has conducted outreach operations out of O’Hare to address homelessness in public transportation since 1990.
Advocates and airport employees have offered a number of reasons why more people are seeking shelter at O’Hare. First, the winter weather usually forces people to find warm, safe places to sleep in at night.
In addition, the number of beds in homeless shelters was decreased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and never restored. Meanwhile, migrants who have recently arrived in the city are using homeless shelters, and homeless shelters across the city are overwhelmed.
Delta’s move to Terminal 5 has also left Terminal 2 empty of passenger traffic, Transportation Security Administration agent Jessy Pearl told the Tribune.
The Haymarket Center’s 24/7 outreach program continues to serve the homeless community at the airport. It is funded by the Chicago Department of Aviation and carried out in cooperation with the Department of Family Support Services and a host of other community partners, such as shelter providers, substance use treatment providers and — importantly — housing programs.
“We have a number of resources available on-site from food and coffee, water, hand sanitizer, masks … those things. We also have clothing available, hygiene products and a few other things,” Dubuar said. “What we’ll also do is invite people to come in and sit down and talk to us. And we do a small assessment with them, exploring all sorts of things from health care, mental health care, substance use, benefits and IDs and all of those things.”
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According to a report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an estimated 65,611 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2020, an estimate different from that offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because it takes into account people living doubled up or temporarily staying with others.
On Feb. 2, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $60 million grant for Chicago, part of $315 million in federal funding to 46 communities across the U.S. to fight homelessness. Chicago Continuum of Care, a collective of more than 100 organizations and individuals working to end homelessness in the city, will be in charge of directing the funds.
The grant money will go toward expanding services, such as outreach teams to move more unsheltered people into housing, said Carolyn Ross, president and CEO of All Chicago, the overseer of Chicago Continuum of Care.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday unveiled Home Illinois, a plan that will invest $50 million this year into prevention, crisis response, housing units and staffing to fight homelessness across Illinois during his State of the State and budget address.
“In Illinois, Black people are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than white people, but the faces of Illinoisans with no home to go to are not homogenous,” he said. “They include single parents with infants and toddlers, sixth graders trying to complete their homework using toilets as a desk in temporary shared housing, and LGBTQ+ high schoolers who were kicked out of their homes by their parents. Homelessness is not an identity, it’s a set of circumstances.”
The Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt and Lizzie Kane contributed.