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I’ve only been in Chicago for a few months, having moved here from New York this past August. In making my decision to move here, I knew that getting to know the city was important. Chicago is complicated and unique, and definitely different from my Midwest upbringing in Michigan and my past two years spent in Manhattan. It was important to me that I understand the city’s beauty, diversity, and challenges. This was part of the reason I accepted a position as a graduate assistant with Chicago Studies—to be connected with more experiential learning opportunities in the city. I set a goal to leave Hyde Park and the University bubble often, but with problem sets due every week and Stata coding to learn, it is challenging to meet it.

When I learned about Chicago Studies’ partnership with the City of Chicago’s Homeless Point-in-Time Count, I knew that I wanted to participate. For the past few years, Chicago Studies has coordinated volunteers for the city’s annual count. The goal of the Count is to canvas the entire city—all 50 wards—to paint a picture of all Chicago residents who are currently experiencing homelessness. Chicago Studies makes it easy for UChicago Students to get involved in the city-wide effort. 

Volunteers began the evening by attending an orientation and training at one of three nonprofit organizations that work to combat homelessness on the South Side of Chicago: Featherfist, Olive Branch, and Thresholds. These organizations, along with others throughout the city, partner with The Department of Child and Family Services to ensure that every Chicago neighborhood is covered. I was assigned to Thresholds, where we went over how to administer the surveys and general best practices for speaking with individuals during the Count. After training and a few snacks, we were split into groups, given a map of our assigned area, and headed out.

I drove a van for my group, which included two other UChicago graduate students (in the Divinity School and in Middle Eastern Studies) and two Kenwood residents—a father and son pair. We were responsible for a square area near Midway, bounded north to south from 57th to 67th and east to west by Cicero and Kedzie. We carefully drove up and down the streets, stopping in a few laundromats and 24-hour fast food restaurants. During our time surveying, from 10 pm to 12:30 am, we were able to speak with two individuals who were currently experiencing homelessness, and to offer them a hat, socks, and hand warmers.

One of the most exciting parts about the Count was knowing that our work would make a tangible impact for the city and its residents who experience homelessness. As a student studying public policy at Harris, I know the importance of data. We read studies on election practices and analyze data on the effects of education policy. A lot of the time, this feels abstract, and it’s difficult to see how numbers can be used to have real-world impact. But the data we we collected during the Count is compiled and submitted to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where it influences the allocation of funding toward initiatives to end homelessness in Chicago. Getting an accurate and thorough count is essential for providing sufficient and effective services for the city, and this process relies on Chicago residents to volunteer.

The best thing about participating in the Count was the sense of community I felt. I have never had an experience where so many people in such a large city came together to reach a goal. The Count involved collaboration among students, nonprofits, families, and neighborhood residents. Even though I didn’t meet all 300 people volunteering, I still felt connected knowing that we were out together. I came away from the experience with new goals for my engagement with Chicago. I felt more connected to the city than I had before, and more hopeful about what my role as a Chicagoan would be. I thought about further ways I could get involved with Thresholds and the other non-profit partners we volunteered with. I considered other areas where data can make a tangible impact in Chicago. Chicago is a big, intricate, and beautiful city, and I’m happy to find it starting to feel more like home.

By Margaret Decker

February 27, 2018