Seven o’clock can’t come soon enough when you’ve been standing outside in the dark, with a 0-degree wind chill — especially when you have no home. 

Volunteer site captain Dale Nowicki goes outside to mingle with the homeless men and women who trek to St. John Lutheran Church at 305 Circle Ave. They have come to find shelter with Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) on Fridays.

“I like to be proactive and use humor,” Nowicki said. “I go out and joke around and try to gauge if anyone needs special help, or if anyone’s not in their best place.” Nowicki and his wife have been volunteering at St. John on first Fridays for 15 years.

 As icy winds whip across the parking lot, each guest presents an ID to volunteers. Women with children are first in line.

“There’s a lottery system,” Nowicki, of Brookfield, said. “We have 48 beds and sometimes we have to turn people away. But we never turn away families.” Two women have small children with them.

Inside the school gym, sleeping mats are organized in a grid on the floor. On top of each is a pillow, a pillowcase, folded fitted sheet and blanket. Beside each bed is a metal folding chair. Volunteers have also set up tables with toiletries, extra sweaters, sweatshirts, scarves and hats. 

Guests file in, unwrapping coats and scarves and taking dibs on a spot where they’ll spend the night. Some go immediately to rest on their sleeping spot. Others arrange their possessions and plug in cell phones. They put their belongings in a special area behind a large screen that’s just for families.

PADS guests must abide by the rules including no intoxication, or panhandling, 

“Three or four people here look like my next door neighbors in River Forest,” said volunteer Steve Narsutis, who started volunteering with his teenager for service hours, and continued after his son went to college. “Some volunteers may feel nervous at first, but these people just encountered a misfortune.”

Meanwhile, 12 members of Mater Christi parish in North Riverside are in the kitchen busy preparing supper. Chili is on the menu tonight, accompanied by bowls of tortilla chips and plates featuring a turkey or ham and cheese sandwich, a fruit cup, cookies and a mini candy bar or two.

Nowicki prides himself on “running a tight ship” and many of the guests are familiar to him. As the meals are wheeled out on trays, Nowicki makes an announcement. 

“We are all an extended family here,” he said. “We are in close proximity and we’re guests here. Respect yourself and each other.

“The weather is going to be severe this weekend,” he continues. “We’ve got lots of clothing in the back. Please take something if you need it.”

He asks the guests to observe a moment of silence for, “those who have a higher power and those who don’t.”

 Nowicki said this is his way of making a “peaceful disconnection between out there and in here.” 

“They go to that place for that brief moment, that separation of thought, and that brings peace to them for an evening,” he said.

“You are safe here,” he tells the guests.

After dinner, men and women can shower (at separate times) and there are two smoke breaks before lights out at 10 p.m. 

Shifts of volunteers come overnight to watch and help with cleanup. In the morning, guests are fed breakfast and are out by 7 a.m. Volunteers put away the bedding to be washed and sanitized. 

Nowicki said some homeless shelters in Chicago had been given a black eye by reports of bedbugs. 

“We have never had that problem here, ever,” he insisted. All bedding is washed every week and the mattresses are sanitized with a ten-percent bleach solution, he said.

Long-time homeless learn to adapt

For many clients of PADS, the stay in the group’s rotation of 10 shelters represents a  temporary phase in life.  But some people are “determined to be off the grid,” said co-site captain Carla Lawless, Nowicki’s wife.

Cold weather presents a challenge for people who have a routine of being “on the street.” 

“I need two knee replacements. But I know I have to keep going,” said Samuel, a Viet Nam-era veteran who worked as a truck driver. “Sometimes you get so tired you want to lie down, but if you do you know you’ll die.” He said he’s working with the VA to get a voucher for housing. “I hope this will be my last year on the street,” he said.

Twenty-four hour Walmarts and McDonald’s in the far suburbs are another source of refuge for the homeless who have access to a vehicle.

“I only come here a couple of nights a week because I can’t stand the snoring,” said Bambi a former truck driver who now lives out of her van.

“Sometimes I’ll go in the bathroom and read the Bible at Walmart.” She uses wireless internet on a tablet she checks out of the library. 

PADS social workers coordinate to transition clients into housing, but people must be ready. A source of income is necessary or verifiable employment, as well as a willingness to work with an educational/training program and case management.

“It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” said Lawless, an attorney who spearheaded the organization’s legal clinic.

PADS clients’ legal problems include, “divorces, eviction, social security benefits, bankruptcy, child support or custody issues, everything you can imagine,” Lawless aid.

“The most disadvantaged have more problems than anyone else,” she added. “But they have to be accountable and responsible [for PADS to work].”

“There are a small number of people who are here because that’s where they want to be,” Lawless said.

A wish list

PADS is a small organization with an army of volunteers. Friday’s volunteers included James Watts, Brittany Edwards and Meghan Carlson. Former Forest Parkers JoAnn and David Josefik started coming several years ago when JoAnn saw a notice in the St. Bernardine bulletin calling for help.

“Once a month, this is what we do,” she said. 

“Some of my friends asked me if I was scared to do this,” she said. “Trust me, these are some of the kindest, most grateful people. It’s really very gratifying to help,” she added.

What could PADS use from people who want to help?

“About 1,000 blankets,” joked PADS staff member Paolo Aniciete. “No seriously, we can always use, in this weather lots of warm clothing.”

Lawless agreed. “If someone gave us a whole crate of socks that would be amazing,” she said.

Husband Nowicki added, “If someone gave us a lot of winter boots, I guarantee they would be worn.” 

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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