On a recent Thursday, all Malcolm Reed could think about was how to get a warm coat and a new pair of shoes.
He lost most of his possessions when he was forced out of O’Hare International Airport by Chicago police in mid-February along with dozens of other people who were not at home. The airport had been a refuge on winter nights until national reports showed how many people were sleeping there – and the city pounced.
That night, Reed, 52, took a Blue Line train to the Forest Park station just west of Chicago, hoping to get lucky at an outreach event run by Night Ministry — a nonprofit organization that sets up meals and medical stations twice a a week at train stations to help the homeless.
More than 100 people were already there when he arrived, queuing for a hot meal and harm reduction kit.
By the time Reed reached the front of the line, the outreach team was already out of clothes for the night. Still, they offered him some Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, which he stuffed into the pocket of his thin black windbreaker.
The CTA pledged earlier this year to expand partnerships with social service agencies, frankly acknowledging in its “Meet the moment” improvement plan that people who are homeless or struggling with mental health problems affected the riders. The Night Ministry is one of three nonprofits that the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) said would benefit from such an expansion.
Previously, the city spent at least $400,000 annually on outreach at major transit hubs, said a spokesperson for DFSS, which oversees services for homeless residents in the city and funds several shelters. This year, the agency will spend $2 million more on extended reach on the Blue and Red lines alone in response to growing concerns about people sleeping there.
But despite resources, some outreach workers and housing advocates say more is needed. And a lack of sleeping beds across the city is pushing more people to sleep on trains, they say, because “the CTA is their last resort.”
“The sad part about the CTA is that it has no facilities,” said Doris Rosanova, an outreach worker at the Ministry of Night. “So it’s just going to be awfully nasty.”
Keeping them “safe and fed”
What outreach workers are saying on this cold February night in Forest Park underscores the scale of the city’s homeless crisis: With fewer beds available and O’Hare no longer an option, more people end up sleeping on trains.
Many shelters were forced to limit bed space to meet health and safety protocols during the pandemic, contributing to an increase in street homelessness.
But even though the pandemic has subsided, the crisis center was never declared healthy.
There are around 3,000 available beds in the city, according to DFSS. But the system that manages the shelters spoke 11,683 active customers — or evicted people already in the system — from the beginning of March. And as of this week, another 4,414 Chicago residents were on the waiting list for housing assistance services.
“The available beds are only a fraction of what we actually need,” said Niya Kelly, director of state legislative policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Twice a week, Rosanova helps her team set up shop at the Howard and Forest Park stations.
Tonight, the 72-year-old retired hospice nurse is manning the food station in a lavender puffer jacket and ski pants, her cropped gray hair peeking out from under her hat.
She puts sandwiches, fistfuls of candy, socks and hand warmers in brown bags before delivering them to what she calls her “customers.” If she sees someone without gloves, she gives them a pair too.
“I have the feeling they ask all day long,” Rosanova said. “So I don’t usually ask what you need. I just give.”
Next to Rosanova sits a young woman who distributes medical equipment ranging from clean needles to tourniquets and alcohol pads – all for pure drug use. Across the room is another makeshift station marked by a plastic partition, where a medical team with Loyola University Chicago treats patients for ulcers, parasites and substance abuse.
These services are a lifeline for those experiencing homelessness, Rosanova said.
“There will be a time for them to recover,” she said. “And we just need to keep them safe and fed … give them the bare essentials until that happens.”
The Night Ministry isn’t the only group trying to help homeless CTA riders. Thresholds, a mental health treatment provider, placed a permanent team of outreach workers on the Red Line in January. They run the train on weekday evenings after rush hour and assist those who need mental health treatment or housing.
The Haymarket Center, which offers substance abuse treatment and mental health programming, started a similar program on the Blue Line last week. Outreach workers ride the trains and walk through platforms trying to develop relationships with clients to identify their needs, a Haymarket official said.
“A fraction of what we actually need”
Rosanova saw almost 150 customers that night.
Among them was 29-year-old Jay Snook, wearing a thin white T-shirt. The father of three said he has been sleeping on the “L” or at CTA train stations since being moved from O’Hare. It came after Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised to do everything she can to remove homeless people from O’Hare, including new security checks requiring CTA customers arriving at the airport to present a boarding pass or work badge between midnight and 4 a.m., according to Block Club Chicago.
Snook decided to hang around to talk to the case manager on duty about getting on the waiting list for beds, even though he knew his prospects were slim.
“As far as beds, there’s just no availability,” said Stephannie Schreiber, case manager for the night ministry. “We call 311 to try to find them shelter. But personally, I’ve never been able to get anyone a bed.”
Asked what it is doing to address a more systemic problem, a DFSS spokesperson said that starting in 2023, the department is allocating an additional $3.7 million annually to increase shelter funding. The spokesman will not reveal exactly where the money is going.
Kelly, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s efforts to expand the reach of the Red and Blue Lines as well as to scale up partnerships with agencies like the Night Ministry are helping. But more funding is needed to meet demand.
“We have to find a way to build on our emergency services so that when we have those really cold nights, they’re not sitting in emergency rooms or in police stations because there’s not a bed available in the city,” Kelly said.
Meanwhile, riders like Malcolm Reed shelter on the CTA that “sleeping anywhere else can get you arrested.”
As night fell and the temperature dropped, Reed took the escalator back up and entered a waiting Blue Line train, where a couple of people had already taken refuge — some slumped in their seats, others digging into dinner.
Reed said he had been robbed on the train several times while he was sleeping. So instead of sleeping, he just tries to stay awake.
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. follow @annasavchenkoo.