May 4, 2024

CTA’s Blue Line Unhoused Riders Crisis Continues to Grow

By Leonardo Gutierrez and Mike Yonova

O'Hare station photo

The entrance to the O’Hare Blue Line station. (Photo/Mike Yonova)

Raul Carrell is a long-time Blue Line rider and Chicago resident who has had his commute impacted by a rise of unhoused people using the CTA as shelter.

“I feel wary,” said Carrell, a bartender at the Chicago Cubs Bar and Grill at O’Hare. “between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 o’clock when I had to open the restaurant.”  

Chicago’s current struggle with unhoused people has created tension between CTA commuters and those using public transportation as a place of shelter.

Many other commuters interviewed voiced their concerns and frustrations on the issue of the unhoused using the CTA as shelter. Another commuter, Oscar Cruiz, echoed a similar sentiment as Carrell.

“If they’re awake and yell … I do feel unsafe sometimes,” he said. “But most of the time they’re just sleeping and just want a warm place to stay at night.”

“I would say we may lose 10-20% of riders because of onboard conditions,” said Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University and expert in public policy, transportation and urban planning.

Cumberland Blue Line stop photo

A train arriving to the Cumberland Blue Line stop. (Photo/Mike Yonova)

Due to the complicated nature of the issue, the Chicago Transit Authority has been championing a compassionate approach to those who have resorted to using trains and stops as shelters. The CTA hopes its approach is successful and entered into an agreement for 2023 with the Department of Family and Social Services to help them be better equipped for handling any challenges. The CTA refused several interview requests for this article. 

The intergovernmental agreement authorized up to $2 million to be used on outreach on Chicago’s Red and Blue Lines. The contract with Thresholds and Haymarket, the non-profit organizations tasked with outreach, was valued at $1.6 million.

Haymarket and Thresholds’ homeless outreach consists of providing individuals with amenities, assisting them in acquiring shelter and connecting them with a variety of other resources to help their well-being.

One of the many contributors to the rise in homeless individuals seeking shelter on the CTA is the current shelter shortage impacting Chicago. Data from the outreach programs shows that requests for shelter from encounters can oftentimes not be met, due to availability. A compounding aspect to this issue is also the location and quality of the shelters available.

“If we are engaging someone on the North Side of Chicago, and the only shelter that is available is on the far west side, what we’re essentially doing is suggesting or offering for an individual to uproot from their community to go over to the far West Side,” said Chris Zamarriego, the director of Thresholds’ homeless outreach program.

“They’re away from their resources, their network of care, into a part of the city that they probably have never even been in, or do they know how to navigate.”

However, the CTA is aware that outreach measures may not be satisfactory to all commuters, as some view homeless individuals as a potential security concern. A recent CTA survey has found that only 49% of individuals are satisfied with their personal security on the train.

To put people’s mind at ease about safety in 2022, the CTA introduced new measures to help curtail the negative reputation it had been garnering. This included expanding the use of contracted security guards and strengthening their collaboration with the Chicago Police Department.

The efficacy of these measures remains to be seen. Some commuters welcome the visibility of security but ultimately view it as ineffective

“I’ve seen over the years more security guards on some stations,” said Cruiz. “but they’re not allowed to actually do anything. They just call the police. Right? But the visibility of security is there. So that’s a good thing”

Schwieterman said that some commuters probably want a visible response to the issue of homelessness from the CTA.

“It’s a delicate act,” he said. “I think the public is wanting, a little more aggressive enforcement of certain things, but they’re [CTA] balancing all kinds of social concerns that force them to be diplomatic. Many people who are offenders are either homeless or they’re facing personal crises in their lives.”

Recently, the CTA Connections account released a video where they address the question ‘What is being done [about] homeless people on the train’ in hopes that their compassionate approach to homelessness is more visible to Chicago commuters.

Zamarriego pushed back on the idea that the public should engage with negative perceptions of homeless individuals.

“I do want to remind folks that people experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, and they’re part of our community,” he said. “Their well-being impacts our well-being. It’s important to treat these folks with empathy and understanding.”

Zamarriego’s concerns stem from the fact that a non-empathetic approach could lead to fear and misinformation, which is ultimately unproductive to reaching the goal of moving unhoused individuals off the CTA and into shelters.

“Advocacy goes a long way,” he said, “if it’s bothering you, then it’s in your best interest to, you know, advocate for more shelters to be built. If you don’t like to see the problem on your CTA commute, let’s find a way to be more constructive.”

How to Help

Zamarriego suggested that advocacy be aimed at aldermanic wards as they ultimately have a say in whether or not a shelter can be built.

In 2023, Chicago reported 3,943 non-asylum seekers as homeless with 970 of those being unsheltered. However Chicago’s shelter evictions on asylum seekers could see the homeless problem becoming worse and a call for more housing and shelters to accommodate the potential influx is needed.

Do you think engaging in local advocacy is a good step? Let us know with a comment below.

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