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Fighting homelessness: Chicago's plan

Other cities adopt model of stressing housing over shelters.

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Janice keeps a keychain on her - though it's not much good these days. "As soon as I get that front-door key, it'll go on it," she says, jingling the chain at a long wooden table in the St. Francis de Paula Hospitality House, a shelter for families.

Janice and her son never expected they'd be homeless. She had her own house when she was married. She's worked - usually in an office - since she was 16. But when she lost a job after 9/11, work became spotty. She couldn't pay rent, started bouncing between friends' houses, and three months ago, she came to the shelter. "I'm not so worried about me," she says. "But I have another life I'm responsible for."

Janice's story is a common one: Most families gathered here on a recent morning speak of lost jobs and lives that spiraled out of control. With unemployment rising

and real estate prices still booming, homelessness in Chicago, as elsewhere, has grown in the past year - particularly among families and working people.

It's a disturbing situation, but one Chicago thinks it can solve. In a move being closely watched around the country, the city is undertaking an ambitious experiment: a 10-year "plan to end homelessness," a drastic shift in strategy that emphasizes permanent housing over shelters. The effort targets the "chronic" homeless - those on the streets repeatedly and for long periods - and aims to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. In the war on homelessness, it's a 180-degree tactical shift.

"What we've learned is that many of the families ... that come into shelters aren't that different from other poor families," says Dennis Culhane, a professor of social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "By continuing to expand the shelter system, we've ... reduced the political pressure to help people address their housing problems."


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