There Are 86,000 Homeless People in Chicago — Here’s How You Can Help Change That Statistic

For more than two decades, Chicago’s A Safe Haven has been offering shelter to those suffering from addiction as they transition into a new and healthier life.

Neli Vazquez Rowland never imagined that this month she’d be celebrating the 25th anniversary of A Safe Haven (ASH), a multi-award-winning, vertically integrated, social and economic development model that rebuilds the lives of people impacted by poverty, behavioral healthcare, substance abuse, prison reentry, and homelessness with a holistic, individualized, case management approach.

“When we started ASH, we were at the tip of the opioid epidemic. ASH is as relevant today as it was the day we began,” says Vazquez Rowland, who founded ASH in 1994 with her husband and military veteran, Brian. She currently serves as the organization’s president. “We both had busy financial careers when our family decided it was time to give back. Based on our personal experience with overcoming alcoholism and addiction in our family, we knew first-hand how few resources were available to anyone who was battling this illness.”

ASH was built from the ground up with the Rowlands’ understanding of where the gaps in the system were. They felt a “gravitational pull” to change the way things had always been done. “Our goal with ASH is to give people with challenges and barriers to getting jobs and housing the access to the recovery services they need in order to achieve employment and shelter — the essentials to getting back on their feet.”

A Safe Haven landscaping service
A Safe Haven’s innovative social business enterprises include their award-winning landscaping service.

To date, ASH has helped more than 120,000 people and has set the standard for a national paradigm shift in how America addresses social and economic issues by leveraging public and private investment resources. ASH is a “first mover” in the field of being able to offer a multi-disciplinary approach that provides services for opioid or heroin substance abuse treatment, education, healthcare, and job training and placement; then offers employment through their social enterprises that include a landscaping company, catering business, and staffing services; and finally access to phased-housing like permanent supportive, affordable, senior and veteran housing.

“We’ve always believed in helping anyone and everyone who falls on hard times and whenever possible we help entire families heal and get back on track,” Vazquez Rowland explains. 

ASH’s unique programming helps thousands of people every year from the following populations in need:

  • Women with children
  • Families
  • Youth (18-24 years old)
  • Non-violent re-entry
  • Single adults
  • Military veterans

The Rowlands have created a framework and a scalable model for which people can aspire, transform, and sustain their lives with dignity and find their way to a new and better reality. But their work is far from done.

“Our biggest challenge is getting more funding to expand our capacity,” she says. “We currently house more than 5,000 people a year and studies show that that there are 86,000 homeless in Chicago. According to our numbers, we’re turning 1,000 people away each month,” Vazquez Rowland adds. “Homelessness isn’t getting better. And with winter right around the corner, if we learned anything from the ‘polar vortex’ of last year, we are literally talking about a life and death situation for a number of these people.”

A Safe Haven canned food drive at the Chicago Auto Show
A Safe Haven’s Auto Show canned food drive takes place every February at McCormick Place and collects several tons of food items for the organization’s food pantry.

On Nov. 16, 2019 at 6 p.m., A Safe Haven will host their 25th Anniversary Gala at the Drake Hotel in Chicago to raise critical funding for their programming. Alex Pissios, of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, is an event co-chair and past ASH honoree. Cinespace is the largest independent movie studio outside of California. In 2017, Pissios received A Safe Haven Foundation’s Business Leader Hero for Veterans award in recognition for his efforts offering employment and training opportunities to A Safe Haven’s veterans and their families. 

At the gala, ASH will honor Bill Sternberg, editor for USA Today. Sternberg is being recognized for sharing his personal story as a family impacted by the opioid epidemic as they lost their son Scott to addiction. His editorial piece in USA Today raised awareness and built compassion for a cause that is helping more families get the support they need. 

ASH will also honor Perry Mandera, CEO of The Custom Companies, Inc.. Mandera has his own inspiring story of overcoming poverty, joining the military, and building one of the largest trucking companies in the state. He is committed to hiring military veterans at his company and exemplifies all that ASH stands for.

At ASH, “93 cents of every dollar we raise goes right to our programming,” adds Vazquez Rowland. “The future of ASH and the trajectory of how we deal with homelessness in this country truly depends on the public and whether or not we choose to support more comprehensive and proven solutions. We are doing our best to not only empower more lives, but to earn the public’s trust and support, too, as a charity partner. If we get support — we’re all in.”


To learn more about A Safe Haven or its 25th Anniversary Gala, visit

Ann Marie ScheidlerAnn Marie Scheidler is a contributing writer with Better who has made a career writing about people, their favorite places, and the things they value most. Ann Marie, a pearl-loving yogi who has a thing for travel, lives in Lake Forest with her husband and five children.




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