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What’s the most constructive response to unhoused people sleeping on the ‘L’?

4:45 PM CDT on April 6, 2023

Slippers left on a Red Line car floor by an unhoused person sleeping across seats. Photo: John Greenfield

In the Reader's new Best of Chicago issue there's an entry by staff writer snd homeless advocate Katie Prout titled "Best action to take when an unhoused Chicagoan is sleeping across three seats on the train." Her answer: "Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

Aside from a couple of quibbles – the first being that an average-sized adult sleeping across the side-facing benches on the Red Line actually takes up four or five seats – the piece is pretty much on-point.

"Don’t take a picture of someone at their most vulnerable," Prout writes. "Don’t post it online for the world to see. Don’t tag the CTA in a post of faux-compassion that reveals your panic and discomfort at having to share a public space with someone who is desperately poor. Don’t be a snitch."

Prout is right that it's generally inappropriate to shoot photos of unhoused people sleeping on trains and publish them online for everyone to gawk at. Even some Chicago journalists haven't gotten the memo about that yet.

He's right on both counts. So if it's cruel to kick unhoused people off trains, but letting trains be used as hotels on wheels on a widespread basis is bad for the future of transit, what's the solution? Clearly the answer is providing permanent housing and supportive services – like mental health treatment, addiction counseling, and employment assistance – to all who want them, ASAP.

Nonprofits like the Night Ministry are already doing the Lord's work by performing outreach on trains to help connect people with social services, in partnership with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. The transit agency's 2023 budget includes an additional $2 million for that initiative.

A resident receives a sack supper from Kyanna Johnson, an outreach worker for The Night Ministry, at a CTA Blue Line station. Photo: The Night Ministry
A resident receives a sack supper from Kyanna Johnson, an outreach worker for The Night Ministry, at a CTA Blue Line station. Photo: The Night Ministry

But what Chicago really needs is a new dedicated funding stream for affordable housing and wraparound services. Prout noted that the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would earmark an increase in the real estate transfer tax on $1 million-plus home sales to fund these things, is a promising strategy. Unfortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies have been blocking it.

But there's a new hope on the horizon, since mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has promised to support Bring Chicago Home. And a fresh crop of progressive alderpersons could help him pass the legislation.

So here's hoping we can make this commonsense ordinance a reality. The result would be more Chicagoans sleeping in beds instead of on 'L' benches; more available seats and nicer conditions on trains for commuters; and increased ridership and revenue for the CTA. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

Check out the Reader blurb here.

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