At 6 p.m. on Friday evenings, a group of people arrive at the side entrance of St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park. They are the tired and poor, homeless and tempest-tossed, like the immigrants welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. And in January, they are cold.
They are the adult and child guests of West Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS).
“Over the last year, PADS has given shelter to 570 distinct individuals in 10 shelters in Oak Park, Berwyn, Forest Park and Franklin Park,” said PADS Director of Programs Teri Curran, noting that the number of clients statewide who are asking for shelter increased by 17 percent in 2012.
“Most are people from the surrounding area or who have lived here in the past,” Curran said.
On the gymnasium floor of Walther Academy, which St. John sponsors, volunteers have assembled 46-50 bedrolls consisting of a fitted and flat sheet, a pillowcase and a blanket. Beside each makeshift bed is a single folding chair. Each bed unit is about 18 inches from its neighbor. A screen sets apart a sub-group of beds for women and families.
As the first guests begin to mill outside, a kitchen staff from Mater Christi Catholic Church in Riverside are preparing a hot meal, including soup, salad and dessert. Other volunteers help serve food and assist. A set of tables are laid with plastic silverware, napkins, cups and plates. Volunteers come in three or four shifts from opening time at 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next morning, when guests are wakened, fed breakfast and sent on their way.
Site captain Dale Nowicki, of Brookfield, has worked first Fridays of the month at St. John PADS for more than 15 years.
“I never forget I woke up this morning in a warm house in a bed with money in the bank and food in the fridge,” Nowicki said. “That’s not the reality of daily life these people have to deal with.”
Nowicki is in charge of the first shift of guests. “I do run a tight ship and people respect me,” he said. His first job is to welcome the guests as they linger outside.
“I go out and mingle with the guests. We joke and laugh and I gauge what’s going on,” Nowicki said. “Sometimes people might be recreationally high on drugs or alcohol and sometimes that high is still with them when they come into PADS. We try to gauge if anybody is in that bad place.”
If a person is misbehaving, Nowicki invites them inside separately and asks them to just go straight to bed.
“Usually that’s fine. I’ve only been burned once in 15 years,” he said.
In colder weather, the shelter uses a lottery system and sometimes 10-12 people are turned away.
Nowicki also looks for people in distress.
“We are seeing more women and families,” he said. “Families get first priority. How do you explain a woman with three little children, the youngest is 2 years old, with barely enough clothes to get warm — how do you explain that?” he asked.
According to PADS Director Lynda Schueler, 37 children used the emergency shelter system in the past year.
“Some of them are very young children in elementary school,” she observed. “They get up in the morning and get themselves clean, and the parents get them to school.”
While maintaining confidentiality, Curran told the story of a mother of two Oak Park and River Forest High School students who lost her Oak Park house but kept the children in school while sleeping at PADS shelters.
“She has an income coming in. She works at a $10 an hour job, but she just can’t afford housing at that salary.”
Nowicki said many guests are indistinguishable from local neighbors. Most have cellphones, some travel with portable DVD players and try to escape by watching a video.
“We have some who wear a suit and polished shoes and go to work every day,” he said. “But because of bad credit they can’t get housing.”
After the guests have arrived at St. John’s, Nowicki makes sure to help them understand that they are in a safe place.
“I try to make a peaceful disconnection between out there and in here,” he said. “Before dinner I give a little talk and ask the guests to remember that they are in a house of God and what they do has ramifications,” Nowicki said. “I remind them to treat themselves and others as they want to be treated, and then we have a moment of silence for those who serve a higher power.
“I truly believe,” he continued, “they go to that place for that brief moment, that separation of thought, and that brings peace to them for an evening.”
After dinner and a smoke break, showers are available and encouraged for those who want them.
“You can only encourage; you can’t make anyone do it,” Nowicki said.
Nowicki lives for the success stories.
“I helped a man with SSI who’d been declined three times,” he said. “I was his advocate and went to court for him, and we got his money. PADS helped him in getting housing and it’s been three years now.”
But Nowicki credits the clients themselves for taking charge of their lives.
“PADS is a hand up not a handout. It’s sweat equity. You’ve got to be doing it for yourself.”
But until clients can make their way out of homelessness, Nowicki focuses on the present moment: creating a safe shelter one Friday at a time at St. John’s.
“We can’t solve homelessness; we can’t change it. All I can do is give my portion of making a peaceful, sane place out of an insane situation.”