By Manny Meraz and Brielle Conwell
Andres Lopez had always made a steady income working from home as a mechanic.
But since the pandemic hit, he has lost his income and his home, and has had to move from house to house among family members, or has had to get motel rooms.
“I used to have my own home before the pandemic and I used to do all my auto work from home back then,” said Lopez, who used to work from his garage before the pandemic hit, and now struggles to find work since he no longer has his home in West Town.
Lopez said he and his 10 brothers have all been mechanics since the mid-1990s. He said being able to work in the US has been better than what he was used to back then in Mexico, but has seemed to change since the pandemic.
Lopez is an immigrant from Mexico, and many people like him have no other options than to try their best to get out of the homelessness situation since they can’t seek help from the government and have to tough it out to make their living situation better. They can only seek jobs that pay cash only — which can harder and harder to obtain — and despite being a 64-year-old man from Mexico with no family to support, work and money is needed to survive.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reported that 58,723 people in Chicago experienced some form of homelessness in 2019. Homelessness has been on the decline in Chicago since 2010, but with the pandemic leaving many people in financial uncertainty, more and more are at risk of homelessness.
The 2021 Household Pulse Survey released that 170,000 adults in Chicago are in fear of losing their home to foreclosure or eviction in upcoming months. While the number of Chicago residents experiencing homelessness has not shown a dramatic increase yet, it appears that this rise could be in the near future as the economic strain from the pandemic continues to grow.
Homelessness comes in many forms. Being homeless can mean living home-to-home because you can’t afford the cost of living. In Lopez’s case, he now lives in different situations because he can’t find steady work.
Sam Carlson, manager of research and outreach in the policy department for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said he believes that the biggest misconception that people have about homelessness is that the majority of homeless people live in shelters or on the streets. In reality, most people experience homelessness through couch-surfing or doubling up by temporarily staying with friends or family.
“The City of Chicago only has around 3,000 shelter beds, while around 23,000 different people access those shelter beds throughout the course of the year,” Carlson said. “So only a fraction of people experiencing homelessness are in a shelter.”
The effect that COVID-19 has had on the economy is putting more and more people at risk for homelessness, especially as government aid related to the pandemic has ended. Throughout the course of the pandemic, many people received government aid in the form of COVID relief checks as well the eviction moratorium that ended in October 2021, which had allowed people to remain in their homes for as long as possible before facing eviction.
“We haven't seen a huge influx in people who are experiencing homelessness yet,” Carlson said. “But it's probably on the horizon, as all of these resources are ending.”
There has not yet been a significant rise in the number of people who have accessed shelters or tried to access shelters over the course of the pandemic. Carlson explained that there has been a significant increase in the number of calls to 311, The Homeless Prevention Hotline, during the pandemic and especially in recent months.
“The pandemic really affected those people because jobs offered [fewer] hours or many jobs just began to lay people,” said Yamira Montoya of the Social Security Administration. “The harsh reality is that the cost of living in the United States seems to be the problem.
“The government has stepped in in tons of ways because there are more programs and longer-tenured programs such as unemployment and social security benefits.”
Montoya added that while the government has initiated programs to help fund more people and families, it doesn’t mean homelessness will be solved instantly.
Lopez said he hopes to save the little money he earns to get a home where he can have access to a garage and work. In the meantime, he’s doing what he can do to get by, but he doesn’t lose hope as he is grateful for being able to be in this country.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has made public claims that a lack of initiative by Chicago’s city government has contributed to the rate of homelessness. Not enough money or resources has been appointed to provide aid for those without adequate housing, the organization claims.
“I would say the leading cause of homelessness in Chicago is a lack of political will to do anything about it,” Carlson said.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless recently launched the Bring Chicago Home campaign in order to create a dedicated revenue stream to address homelessness in Chicago. The signature campaign is advocating to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end property sales costing over $1 million.
Currently, if a person buys or sells property in Chicago, there is a transfer tax of 0.75%, Bring Chicago Home aims to raise that tax to 1.9% on properties over $1 million and all revenue generated will go toward funding housing for people experiencing homelessness.
“This could end homelessness,” Carlson said. “And in Chicago, it could house tens of thousands of families.”