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Disability in the Shadow of Mass Incarceration

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By Reuben Jonathan Miller


It was April of 2009. The city of Chicago was just past the midpoint of its “10 year plan to end homelessness,” and it was only a few months before city officials admitted the depths of the city’s poverty, renaming the “10 year plan” just “the plan.” This was a full decade before private developers, working in tandem with the city, put up a fence around “the
Triangle,” evicting hundreds of homeless Chicagoans from their encampment on Lower Wacker Drive — one of few places people without homes might find something that approximated warmth outdoors during a Chicago winter.

I arrived at 4:30 a.m., surveyed the scene with my research partner, and connected with a staff member from the homeless outreach organization that served the residents of the Triangle. The staff member was kind and well prepared. A licensed clinical social worker, he was armed with a clipboard and a duffel bag filled with extra socks, hats and gloves, “petty cash,” and $5 coupons good for a meal at McDonald’s — this was when you could still buy two cheeseburgers, a small fry, and a drink from McDonald’s for $4.99. And there was real need. The 2009 point-in-time count for homeless Chicagoans was 6,240. While the figure represented an increase from the year before, it was likely a gross underestimation given what we now know about homelessness in our country. Most people’s experience with homelessness is temporary. Like we’ve learned about poverty more generally, homelessness is something people fall in and out of in a given year. With this more sophisticated understanding in mind, researchers estimated a staggering 76,998 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2018.

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