“Doubling Up” in the City of Chicago

CHICAGOFor fifteen years, I have I worked at a school where anywhere from 4 to 8% of the students are homeless. Although my district includes in that percentage students living in “doubled up” situations (where families are forced to stay with a series of friends or extended family members), many people are not aware that this meets the definition of homelessness. To make matters more confusing, the federal government agency of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not count living doubled up as being homeless. Most of my students are Hispanic and often have a cultural heritage that encourages families to double up in hard times. Therefore, it may not even occur to a family to investigate whether services are available for their children. I believe if we were able to accurately count the doubled up families, the percentage would be much higher. This is likely true for families across the city, too.

Why does living doubled up matter? A 2016 study of homelessness in Chicago found that 80% of homeless people sought shelter with relatives and friends during that year. Furthermore, 50% of homeless families served by the emergency shelter system had lived doubled up prior to or after entering a shelter, up from 44% the previous year. Because HUD does not count this situation as being homeless, these families are ineligible for assistance while they are living in doubled-up residences. To even be considered at “imminent risk” of being homeless, HUD requires a formal notice of eviction. This is something that may not be available to most families living doubled up. Advocates for the homeless have been lobbying the federal government to include a more nuanced approach to HUD’s definition of homelessness after it was revised in 2012. As we can see from the numbers above, housing instability like doubling up can be a great predictor of who is likely to require emergency shelter services. If the name of the game is prevention, doubling up must be included in the definition of homelessness across federal agencies to ensure that people are receiving the help they need.

Living doubled up may provide a roof over a family’s head, but it is a tenuous situation. The tension and chaos from living with so many people in close proximity can have a deleterious effect on the health and well-being of all the individuals living together. While the host family typically can enjoy privacy, most “guest” families spend their time in the common spaces of the household. The lack of privacy and the increase in ambient noise makes it difficult for children to focus on homework, prepare for school the next day, and be well-rested. Because families are sleeping on couches and floors, they may be beholden to the host family’s schedule which might not coincide with their own schedules. Adults may go without sleep which could affect their performance at work the next day.

There is often no place to prepare or store food, so the guest family may be forced to spend money on less cost-effective carry-out and supermarket-prepared foods. They may lack access to the bathroom facilities and not be able to shower regularly. Guest family members may not have a key to the dwelling, and children may have nowhere safe to go after school lets out. Children and their families may feel less in control of their lives which can place a strain on parent-child relationships. Children in particular are vulnerable and may begin to act out in school.

A guest family is always reliant on the good will of their hosts. If there is a strain or a disagreement, the guest family may find themselves out on the street. Homeless families may bounce from household to household this way leading to high mobility rates for children. “Mobility” is a term that means the number of schools a child enters and withdraws from during a school year which for some children can be as high as ten or more different schools. The difficulties for high mobility should be almost intuitively understood: increase in high school dropout rate, increase in teenage pregnancy, increase in drug-related problems, increase in interactions with the criminal justice system, decrease in self-esteem, decrease in ability to form attachments with others, and increase in mental and physical illness. Children need routine and stability, and life while doubled up often provides neither.

As faculty and staff at the schools, we must make sure we continue to advocate for out students who are homeless and connect them with the services they need. These supports are stop-gaps, though. We need greater sensitivity to the needs of people who are homeless and at imminent risk of becoming homeless. Housing Support for Families in Transition (FIT) was the first city-funded project to focus on the needs of families living in doubled-up situations. This served about one hundred families last year and represents a good beginning in addressing the needs of doubled up families but there is so much more to do.

The ultimate goal should be prevention of homelessness which requires multigenerational economic and social investment. The city also needs multi-unit affordable housing developments as more residents are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. Communities need revitalization efforts like grocery stores, well-funded neighborhood schools, and job opportunities. We also could use some innovation and creativity to help people change their circumstances such as the tiny home experiment in Detroit, something that may be replicable in Chicago and could be another step in the right direction.


If you are homeless and need shelter, please phone Chicago City Services at “311” or (312) 744-5000. Tell the operator you are homeless and need shelter.

If you are housed but concerned that you may lose your housing, tell the operator you need “short term help.” Callers will be transferred to a Homelessness Prevention Call Center. The center is housed and operated by Catholic Charities, with services available in multiple languages.

Additional help can be found here.

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