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Defacto Shelters

Homeless Living in Vacant Public Housing Units

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Document date: March 04, 2005
Released online: March 04, 2005

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The Plan for Transformation, initiated in 1999, calls for demolition of distressed public housing high-rises and construction of lower-density mixed-income communities. The plan, being implemented by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), will substantially reduce the number of family public housing units, and relocate thousands of households with Housing Choice Vouchers.1 As Chicago's public housing is demolished to make way for new mixed-income communities, an unknown number of homeless squatters living illegally in vacant public housing units will also lose their housing. As illegal squatters, these residents have neither legal right to relocation services nor the right to return to revitalized developments.

The squatters are not official CHA residents, making it unclear which city agency is responsible for responding to this urgent problem. The city is implementing an ambitious plan to assist to end homelessness. The plan, Getting Housed, Staying Housed: A Collaborative Plan to End Homelessness, represents a fundamental shift in the homeless service delivery system, from the current one that focuses on an emergency shelter system and transitional housing to a system that encourages a "housing first" philosophy.2 The Chicago Continuum of Care, a consortium made up of homeless providers and staff from the city, is responsible for implementing the plan to end homelessness. Although this plan ostensibly addresses the issue of homelessness in the city, there is no specific plan regarding the hundreds of homeless living in public housing. Further, to date the CHA has created no formal policies to ensure that the squatters living in public housing are offered social services and safe, stable housing before public housing buildings are demolished.

The Creation of De Facto Shelters

The issues of public housing transformation and ending homelessness are inherently linked. Public housing has served as the housing of last resort in Chicago for many years; poor management and high crime rates have driven out most tenants who had other options. Federal preferences required that the housing authority give priority to applicants who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. By the 1990s, the population of the CHA's developments had much in common with the truly homeless: the residents were extremely poor, most were unemployed, many had mental health problems, and even more were substance abusers (Popkin et al. 2000). Without the safety net of public housing, as bad as it was, many of these residents would have nowhere to live.

In addition to these "at risk" tenants, the CHA's population also included a substantial number of homeless individuals who relied on public housing for occasional or regular shelter. Many CHA households included "illegal" residents, i.e., tenants who were not on the lease but who slept in the unit on a regular basis. Often, these were family members or friends with criminal records, technically barred from public housing, or simply down on their luck and needing a place to stay (Popkin, Cunningham, and Woodley 2003; Venkatesh 2003). It was not uncommon for several generations of a family to be crowded in a single CHA unit, with only a few—or maybe even no—legal tenants in the household. Some legal tenants passed their units on to other relatives, or sublet their units illegally. Until the late 1990s, CHA management of its properties was so poor that managers either overlooked or even permitted such practices.

As vacancy rates soared in CHA's high-rise housing during the 1990s—the result of poor management and deferred maintenance—the developments also became home to a hidden population of squatters. Despite the desperate need for assisted housing, waiting lists for public housing were long and unoccupied units often remained vacant, especially as plans began to demolish the high-rises and replace them with mixed-income housing. In some developments, vacancy rates exceeded 50 percent (Popkin et al. 2000). Many of these units were habitable, with heat, running water, working refrigerators, and electricity. These vacant units were an attractive option for many homeless individuals, especially with the overall lack of shelter beds and a shrinking pool of SROs and other affordable options. Vacant CHA units were particularly attractive options for people addicted to drugs—a person living in a vacant unit was free of the rules imposed by most shelters and, further, had easy access to drug dealers. Over time, the CHA's vacant units came to function as de facto shelters for the city's homeless population.3 As a result, the demolition of the CHA's developments will affect an unknown number of homeless people who have been relying on the buildings for shelter for many years.

There is no systematic data about the size of the homeless population living in vacant public housing units. Advocates estimate that 166,000 people experience homelessness each year in the Chicago metropolitan area (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless 2002). One hundred and twenty-five temporary shelter programs in Chicago provide 6,000 beds each night. In years past, the capacity of the city's shelter system has been stretched, especially during cold Chicago winters (Sun Times 2001). Concerns about how the transformation of public housing will affect both public housing residents and the homeless residents living illegally in public housing buildings have been expressed in a number of media outlets; however there is no empirical evidence that shows a direct link between increases in the number of homeless and the Plan for Transformation (Chicago Reporter March 2004; The Columbia Chronicle May 2004; Residents Journal 2004). Without this information, it is difficult for policymakers to understand the extent of the problem and develop a plan to ensure that the squatters living in public housing end up in safe and stable housing.

This study focuses on Ida B. Wells/Madden Park, a development slated for demolition and revitalization since 2000. Wells is one of the sites for the Urban Institute's national HOPE VI Panel Study, and we have been tracking its progress since 2001.4 CHA contractors are demolishing Wells, which once included 3,200 units in three developments (Wells, Madden Park, and Darrow Homes) to make way for a new, mixed-income community that will be called "Oakwood Shores." Vast tracts of vacant land have replaced high-rise buildings and rowhouses. The four towers of the Darrow Homes are gone. Madden Park, which stood across the street from Wells, is gone too. With the demolition, the gang war that raged for years between the two developments has ended, but as the shooting has subsided, Wells has become a haven for drug dealers and now houses a thriving open-air drug market. Dozens of apartments in the remaining buildings of Wells and the Wells Extension—mostly six flats and mid-rises—are boarded up. Although hundreds of public housing residents still live there, the development has the feel of a ghost town.

The area surrounding Wells is changing, too. For decades one of Chicago's—and the nation's—poorest communities, the neighborhood is now rapidly gentrifying. Two other enormous public housing developments, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes, are also being demolished; another development, the long-vacant Lakefront Properties, is already gone and being replaced with new housing. South Lake Shore Drive, once the seediest part of Chicago's lakefront, is undergoing a makeover. The city has refurbished the nearby parks and added new playgrounds and recreational facilities. Market-rate townhomes and rehabilitated brownstones are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly to affluent and middle-income African-American families, but to some white families also. The mixed-income development slated to replace Wells will be part of this new community.

What happens to the original residents of the buildings slated for demolition is a central focus of the Urban Institute's HOPE VI Panel Study. While conducting research for the Panel Study at Wells, which focused on the relocation of legal public housing residents, it became clear that many of the people living in Wells were living there illegally. With no lease and no legal right to relocation, the people squatting in Wells would be the hardest hit by the demolition of public housing units. To respond to this situation, we expanded our research to assess the extent of the problem of illegal squatters in Wells and the capacity of the social service system to respond to their needs.5

Research Objectives

This study has two main research objectives. The first is to count the number of homeless people illegally living in Wells. We hope that quantifying the extent of the homelessness problem at Wells will assist policymakers to develop an appropriate response. The second objective is to understand the squatters' current living situations, the factors that contributed to their homelessness, and their service needs.

In the remainder of this section we describe our data collection methods, including how we counted the number of homeless people living in Wells and our in-depth interviews with them. In the next sections we quantify the extent of the squatter problem at Wells, provide profiles of the homeless people living there, identify barriers to stable housing, and talk about their plans for housing when the buildings are demolished. Finally, we present recommendations for next steps.


The report presents both quantitative data collected from a survey and qualitative data collected from in-depth interviews. We used three data collection methods:

Squatter Census. For two weeks in March 2003, a team of interviewers counted and surveyed the homeless residents squatting in Wells, specifically those sleeping in vacant units or living in other spaces within buildings (trash rooms, hallw ays, and other communal spaces).6 Interviewers worked as a team, sweeping through specified sections of Wells each day. The team worked primarily in the early mornings and early evenings, in order to count and survey homeless squatters as they were leaving or returning. Each respondent received $10 for completing the survey.

In-Depth Interviews. In addition to the survey, we conducted two rounds of in-depth interviews with a total of 32 homeless people squatting in Wells illegally. We conducted the first round of interviews in March 2003 and the second round in March 2004. A survey interviewer identified respondents for the in-depth interviews by canvassing the development during the day and recruiting respondents.7 We paid respondents $25 for their time. The in-depth interviews allowed us to ask less structured questions to identify the factors that led them to become homeless and barriers that prevent them from obtaining stable housing; they lasted approximately 80 minutes. We transcribed and then analyzed the interviews for common themes.

Administrative Interviews. Finally, in summer 2004, we conducted administrative interviews with city officials at the department of housing and the Chicago Housing Authority, as well as local service providers. The purpose of these interviews was to expand our knowledge of what was happening on the ground at the time of data collection, and to understand the current plans to end homelessness and transform public housing.8

Notes from this section

1 This plan calls for the redevelopment of 25,000 units, but will result in a substantial reduction in family public housing units (net loss of 14,000 units) with as many 6,000 families relocating to the private market with Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8). Since the plan was first approved in 1999, the CHA has dem olished nearly 7,000 units, including 2,199 in FY 2002. The authority has rehabilitated more than 2,000 units, primarily in senior buildings, and begun construction on several small, mixed-income developments. Nearly 2,400 families have been relocated, about half within public housing and half with vouchers (Metropolitan Planning Council 2003). For more information please see FY2005 Annual Plan for Transformation-Year 6, which is available at http://www.thecha.org/.

2 The goal of ending homelessness was first adopted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2000. By 2003, the Bush administration had made it a "top objective" in the FY 2003 Budget. Although there is no federal money to support the plans, over 100 cities and some states have committed to developing a plan by 2004 (Burt et al. 2004).

"Housing first" focuses on first providing housing and then providing follow -up case management services. For more on this approach see the National Alliance to End Hom elessness at http://www.naeh.org/.

See The Chicago Continuum of Care, Getting Housed, Staying Housed: A Collaborative Plan to End Homelessness. The plan is available at http://www.chicagocontinuum.org/.

3 The term "de facto shelter" was first used in "The View from the Ground," a series on the relocation and demolition of Stateway Gardens written by Jamie Kalven. See http://www.viewfromtheground.org/.

4 See Popkin et al., HOPE VI Baseline Report (September 2002) for a complete description of the study methodology as well as study findings.

5 The Residents at Risk Study was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, and conducted in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory (SRL) and Ujima, a resident-run nonprofit based in Wells. Sudhir Venkatesh, an ethnographer and principal investigator of a relocation study at Robert Taylor Homes, acted as an advisor to the project.

6 There are a number of methodological challenges associated with counting the homeless that make obtaining accurate estimates very difficult to achieve. We implemented a number of strategies to avoid double counting. Please see appendix A for a full description.

7 Because the in-depth interview respondents were recruited nonrandomly during the day, it is likely that we oversampled respondents that were not working at the time and were more likely hang out in the dev elopment during the day and undersampled families who were living in vacant units.

8 For a complete list of interview respondents, please see appendix B.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

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