Advocating for Longtime Illinoisans & Recent Arrivals Experiencing Homelessness

As we work to end homelessness for both Illinoisans already experiencing homelessness and new arrivals, we must stay united and focus on housing as a basic human need for all.

A Shifting Landscape

Since August 31, 2022, more than 30,000 people who are asylum seekers, including single adults families with children, have arrived in Chicago, seeking safety and a new start. Many homeless service providers in the Chicago area and around the state are working hard to serve both longstanding populations of people experiencing homelessness and recent arrivals; as newcomers have arrived, a broad range of government, nonprofit, and volunteer partners have mobilized to respond to immediate needs and begin working toward longer term support.

Rising Tensions

The increased demand among people needing shelter and housing in our communities, where there is such a shortage of affordable housing to begin with, has led to outpouring of public support to welcome people in need who are new arrivals, but also sometimes led to opposition, resentment, and other negative feelings.

Listening to and talking with our members, partners, allies, directly impacted people and others, we know this has sometimes created an increased tension regarding whose needs demand prioritized and increased attention and resources. Those tensions can be based around perceptions connected to who has been in the community longer and thoughts and attitudes related to race, ethnicity, immigration status, familial status, age and/or other factors.

Unity, Inclusion, & Racial Justice

Our solutions must support everyone experiencing homelessness and housing instability, no matter where they come from or how long they have been here. Our discussions must lift up the need to ensure homes for every individual and family, rather than pitting one population against another. Pitting vulnerable populations against each other does not bring us closer to homes for all and is counter to the message that housing is a basic human need.

Ending homelessness and ensuring affordable homes for all is not a new problem or an unsolvable one. No individual–or group of vulnerable individuals–is responsible for Illinois’ shortage of affordable homes, shelter beds, social services, and other resources needed to create a state where everyone has a place to call home. The shortage of affordable housing is primarily due to insufficient public investment and other issues (e.g., the high cost of developing new housing, too much of focus on market-based solutions, low-incomes and poverty, restrictive land use and zoning policies and many other issues, including “Not In My Backyard” NIMBY attitudes, often based on unfairly discriminatory factors).

Ending homelessness is also a matter of racial justice. The longstanding populations of people facing homelessness in Chicago and throughout Illinois are disproportionately Black. Housing Action’s own data analysis of Black and white disparities in homelessness, published in in 2019, found that Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than white Illinoisans.

Moreover, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’s 2023 Chicago Homelessness Estimate found that more than 68,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Chicago in 2021, a rapidly rising number, and that 82% of these individuals are people of color. The report estimates that 53% of people experiencing homelessness are are Black, a very disproportionate representation, as just 29% of Chicago’s overall population is Black.

Let’s Focus on Inclusive Solutions

Illinois is at a pivotal moment when it comes to addressing homelessness, including creating more affordable housing for people with a range of needs. In the past three years, Governor Pritzker and state legislators have created a permanent planning infrastructure through establishment of the Illinois Office to Prevent and End Homelessness and a Chief Homelessness Officer position in state government. The fiscal year 2024 budget included historic investments, $85 million in new funding, and work has begun on an updated state plan to end homelessness, HOME Illinois. However, we need these types of new investments each year on an ongoing basis if we are really go to reach functional zero homelessness.

The State of Illinois and City of Chicago have made significant investments to address the housing and other needs of people who are new arrivals, but only the federal government truly has the resources to address the situation. A small amount of federal resources to meet the needs of people who are new arrivals has been allocated, but much more should be committed.

At the federal level, during the height of the pandemic, the federal government significantly increased spending to keep people safe and housed with emergency rent assistance and other resources. However, as of the end of 2023, we are at serious risk of losing ground, because most of the House majority party wants to significantly cut federal spending on programs that address the basic human need of housing. We all need to be advocating to oppose these proposed cuts and make the case for significantly increased investments, particularly for people with the lowest incomes.

This is a time for solutions. It’s easy to feed into narratives driven by fear or get overwhelmed by shifting needs and demographics, but constructive, forward-looking messages keep people from tuning out and remind us that change is possible. Let’s work together, lifting up our shared values, to welcome and support everyone in Illinois communities.

How We Talk About This Matters

As we call for additional resources and policy changes, the way we frame our case is key. We have the opportunity to find shared values, align messaging, and make a greater impact together.

Below are some messaging examples that Housing Action Illinois members, partners, and allies may find useful to quote, adopt, or adapt. They are informed by guidance and examples from our work with the Welcome to IL Coalition, resources from The Housing Narrative Lab, and narrative change guidance from The Opportunity Agenda and Frameworks Institute.

Homes are a basic human need. Housing is a human right.

  • Housing is a basic human need that we must provide for everyone. Housing is fundamental to the stability, security, and success of individuals and families. Without housing, life has to focus almost entirely on securing a home.
  • Housing for all means all. Housing is a human right. From this perspective, housing should not be viewed primarily as something to be bought and sold, but something that society and government guarantees to everyone. Find out more about housing as a human right from the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Housing.
  • We need to ensure that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live, no matter what they look like or where they come from.

Connect with your audience and focus on being active, engaged, and empowered.

  • We all have a role to play in ending homelessness for our neighbors, wherever they come from and however long they have been in our communities.
  • Learn about what is happening in your community, where you can be an advocate for ensuring everyone has access to shelter.

Stress unity, inclusivity, and a shared purpose.

  • “It is time for a robust and coordinated response from the Federal, State, and local level to ensure that all immigrants and asylum seekers can thrive in Chicago and Illinois.” This is core messaging from the Welcome to Illinois coalition.
  • Housing Narrative Lab research shows that explicit references to race often resonate when talking about inclusivity. “Whether we are Black or white, Latino or Asian, Native or newcomer…”
  • Housing Narrative Lab research also shows that lifting up shared purpose in our solutions is helpful: “Know that when we bring people together from all different walks of life, we’re able to spark new ideas, pioneer groundbreaking innovations, and solve big problems.” You may want to reference “our shared future.”
  • Everyone has a role to play in shaping our communities, and we need to work together to ensure everyone has a home. That means collaboration among recently formed mutual aid organizations, government agencies, social service providers who have run shelters for years, and others.
  • Focus on the positive effects that new migrant communities can have on the larger community they’re joining, such as economic growth and new ideas.
  • Focus on the positive effects of ensuring homes for longstanding populations of people facing homelessness, such as stability, safety, and security, and a foundation from which people can secure a job, access education, care for their families, and build a future.

Don’t repeat opposition messages. Instead, focus on systems and root causes that force people into unstable housing situations.

  • Everyone wants a safe place to call home. But because of skyrocketing rents, a shortage of affordable units, low-paying jobs, and unstable, dangerous economic and political situations in their home countries, many people are forced into homelessness.
  • We need to address the systems that have led to housing injustice and our current situation. Rather than blame those in need as the problem, we must focus on the deeper issues at play and work together on community-wide solutions. (Go into specific solutions you/your organization suggests.)
    • Note on potential community solutions: Some of Housing Action’s partners in the Welcome to Illinois Coalition have worked to build trust and relationships on a local scale by bringing together community residents and new arrivals for meals and by doing educational outreach through canvassing and door knocking.
  • NILC Immigrant Justice Fund suggests that when someone mentions the so-called “border crisis,” it is helpful to shift the conversation by clarifying and adding context: “There is not a ‘border crisis,’ but rather a humanitarian crisis at our border. This humanitarian crisis has worsened over the years because of an overwhelming backlog of cases, resources not being funneled to lawful and humane processing, and harmful policy choices, such as the implementation of the Title 42 expulsion order. These choices have decimated our asylum system, making it almost impossible for people fleeing violence and seeking safety to access their legal right to seek asylum.”

Stay solution-oriented.

  • From the Housing Narrative Lab: “Homelessness–for people who have lived here for years or people who have just arrived–is solvable when our local and state leaders work together to ensure everyone has a safe and affordable place to live.”
  • Our society has the resources and solutions to support both longtime and new neighbors. We must expand proven programs and increase resources to serve people who were already in Illinois struggling to make ends meet, living doubled up with friends and relatives, seeking beds at shelters, and living in tents–as well as recent neighbors who have just arrived, fleeing dangerous political and economic situations in their home country.
  • We live in a wealthy country, and we have solutions to address homelessness, including trauma-based care, housing with supportive services, converting buildings to affordable housing and shelters, zoning reforms. We also have critical resources such as government funding, dedicated service providers, and incredibly engaged mutual aid organizations and volunteers. Homelessness is awful and the scope of the problem can be overwhelming, but we can ensure that everyone has a home and the support they need to keep it. Here are some ways you can help… (here, you can list specific ways to engage).
  • Preventing homelessness and expanding affordable housing options are both key to ending homelessness. We can help keep people in their homes by expanding rental assistance and emergency rental assistance for households in crisis, strengthening renter protections, and preserving and increasing the supply of affordable homes–which also helps people exit shelters into good, stable housing.

Strong Messages in Action

  • Short and on topic: MTO Position on the “Migrant” Crisis
  • If local estimates of homelessness in your community are rising, here is a message suggested by the Housing Narrative Lab:
    • “More people experiencing homelessness shows that our [city/town/state] hasn’t built or preserved enough affordable housing. Finding a place to live is like a game of musical chairs. There aren’t enough chairs and people who are older, sick, unable to work or struggling to get by are the first to lose out. Instead of blaming people for having nowhere to live, we have an opportunity to do what we know works–create more housing and get people authorized to work quickly so they can get the help they need.”
  • Longer toolkit from Latino Policy Forum and CMAP with helpful language and messaging about our immigrant communities: Immigrant Integration Toolkit
    • For example: “The U.S. is a nation built by immigrants. Throughout history and continuing through today, people from all places in the world have come to this country, fleeing economic hardships, religious and political oppression, and seeking opportunity. The Chicago region is no different. Northeastern Illinois has benefited from the vast economic contributions of its immigrant populations. In the early 20th Century, as the country faced the challenge of transforming its economy from an agricultural base to an industrial base, an immigrant and migrant labor force led the way, making Chicago one of the country’s greatest industrial cities. Immigrants looked to Chicago for homes and jobs, at the same time knowing they could find a sense of community among its many ethnic neighborhoods. This trend is changing—today more immigrants live in the Chicago suburbs than in the City.”