Mary Tarullo and Bradley Sanders on Bring Chicago Home campaign

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Earlier this year, JCUA members voted to take on the Bring Chicago Home (BCH) campaign, alongside a diverse coalition of community organizations, including Communities United, ONE Northside, SEIU Healthcare IL, United Working Families, and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Bring Chicago Home seeks to end homelessness in Chicago by creating a dedicated revenue stream for permanent supportive housing — the proven solution to homelessness.  

This is a critical moment to build awareness and support for BCH, as Chicago lawmakers deliberate and vote on the city’s next budget. Our coalition is using the budget season to lift up the need for long-term, dedicated sources of revenue for addressing homelessness. Tell your alderperson to support our campaign!

To learn about the state of housing in Chicago and the details of the BCH campaign, we spoke to Mary Tarullo, Associate Director of Policy and Strategic Campaigns at CCH, and Bradley Sanders, Community Outreach Manager at Renaissance Social Services. The remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jonathan Elbaz: How would you describe the state of homelessness in Chicago, and what has been the city’s response?

Mary Tarullo: Chicago has more than 58,000 people experiencing homelessness, and this number is only expected to grow when the Illinois eviction moratorium is lifted in early October. More than 28 percent of Chicago metropolitan area renters say they have “slight or no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent — which is a big indicator showing us that when the moratorium is lifted, homelessness in Chicago is going to grow.

We’ve had a huge problem before COVID-19 and the pandemic is only exacerbating it. The need for long-term solutions are all the more acute because of the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19 and because of how much more dangerous it is to be experiencing homelessness during a pandemic.

Chicago hasn’t done anything systemic to address the problem. They are spending the money we’ve received from the federal government in ways that make sense, and that’s great, but those solutions are all temporary. They’re band-aid solutions. They’re not addressing the ongoing need we have. Other cities have recognized they need to step up and generate their own funding to build housing. Since the pandemic began we know of at least two places — Denver and Seattle — that have created dedicated revenue streams for homelessness. We can do this, even in the middle of economic uncertainty.

How did you get involved with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and why is the Bring Chicago Home campaign important to you?

Bradley Sanders: I became involved with CCH through my current employer, Renaissance Social Services, where I serve as the Community Outreach Manager. The BCH campaign is essential because I am empathetic toward the individuals for which the campaign advocates. I am the product of homelessness myself. My mother and sister also experience the ills of being houseless for many reasons — mental health and low wages being the most prominent. I too was homeless in high school, through college, and for most of my career. It became increasingly difficult to build relationships. Feelings of shame, low self-esteem were escalated by not having a place to host friends. I had to rely on others to be there for me, and that’s a heavy burden to carry around because your relationships can become transactional.

My mother was fine before her bout with mental illness. After her breakdown, my siblings and I went into the foster care system. Many people like myself — a child in these situations — end up in foster care without the necessary support. I can only imagine where I would be if I had an opportunity to focus on my education rather than focusing on where I would sleep next. I spent nights in dorm room lounges and overnight computer labs. Imagine not being able to afford a stay in a house and still trying to be a model citizen. These are all reasons why this campaign is essential to me.

What is permanent supportive housing, and why is it the proven solution to homelessness?

Mary: Permanent Supportive Housing is affordable housing — no matter your income — connected to critical services. These include healthcare, mental health care, job training programs, education, and other services that ensure residents know how to pay rent and stay on top of all the things they need to remain housed. If you talk to people experiencing homelessness, what they’re going to tell you is that they need housing like this. Shelters are not what people are looking for: many people don’t feel physically safe in shelters, and there are a lot of barriers. For example, if you work a job that has weird hours, you might run into trouble because the shelter has a curfew. Some folks have reported horror stories of having their stuff stolen.

So we are pursuing Permanent Supportive Housing because that’s what people experiencing homelessness say they want. Additionally, there are studies that show that Permanent Supportive Housing is the right intervention. When you provide people with housing, they can address all their other issues. As Bradley said, how can you address a health problem when you don’t have a roof over your head? How can you keep a job when you don’t have housing? The coupling of housing with services is key, and research shows the combination keeps people stably housed.

Why are long-term solutions to homelessness — not just short-term solutions like shelters — essential at this moment?

Bradley: The President of the United States talks about building back better. Chicago is in a transformational period right now. If we hope to build back better then we need a sustainable housing policy that addresses the byproducts that are a result of living unhoused. I’ve both witnessed and experienced firsthand how being unhoused could cause a domino effect of issues for everyone — from the tax dollars being wasted, to the families being affected and suffering. Due to a lack of resources, families are being torn apart if not spiritually, then financially. Having a sustainable dedicated revenue stream could go a long way in saving money across the board, including wasted funds on healthcare services.

How does BCH create a dedicated revenue stream for permanent supportive housing? Where does the money come from?

Mary: Our proposal is to make the Real Estate Transfer Tax progressive. This would be a one-time tax levied when a property is bought or sold. Right now everybody pays the same rate, and we want to make it so that properties that are sold for more than 1 million will see a higher increase. This will affect only 5 percent of properties. More than 95 percent of home buyers or sellers will actually see a tax cut, so it’s a win-win situation. We estimate that the restructuring of this tax would generate $167 million in new revenue — with $79 million specifically allocated for addressing homelessness.

What are the three stages of the BCH campaign, and where do we go from here?

Mary: We’re currently in the first step of the process. We need the Chicago City Council to vote to put on the ballot our question about restructuring the Real Estate Transfer Tax. There’s no other way to get this question on the ballot; it has to be approved by the majority of City Council with the support of the mayor. Then the referendum question has to pass with a simple majority of voters. We’ve set our eyes on the November 2022 election.

A victory in the referendum would give authority to the City Council to actually change the Real Estate Transfer Tax. It doesn’t require them to change it, but gives them the authority. The third step will be passing an ordinance that actually changes the tax.

Right now, we are in the middle of budget season, and we want to use this as an opportunity to lift up the need to create long-term solutions to homelessness. All of the proposals for next year are short-term and not nearly adequate. There has been a substantial amount of resources allocated for homelessness and we’re happy to see that. We see this as evidence that organizing works and the mayor is listening to people experiencing homelessness in the city.

But we are also going to use this as an opportunity to lift up the need to create long-term solutions. We’re asking allied alderpeople and the alders we’re trying to bring on board to speak out during budget season about Bring Chicago Home, to join us at our press conference on October 7 before the Department of Housing budget hearing, and to post their support of creating a dedicated revenue stream for homelessness on their social media channels.

What type of work is there to be done? How can leaders and residents get involved?

Mary: Our biggest focus is bringing more alderpeople on board. JCUA is leading a few key targeted wards, and chances are that all of JCUA’s members have some connection to the alders we are targeting. There’s a lot of work to be done to build support in these wards through canvassing and outreach, so that we not only bring new alderpeople on board but maintain their support throughout the campaign. They need to know the supporters of Bring Chicago Home are not going away.