Housing Forward recently issued an emergency, all-points bulletin about its PADS shelter program, calling area residents for help in the fight against homelessness.

“I’m reaching out to you all about the increasing numbers of people in need of our shelter services,” Lynda Schueler, executive director, wrote in a Jan. 11 email. “Since the shelter season began in September, our turn-away numbers (defined as the total number of times we had to turn someone away at the shelter due to capacity) are more than double during the same time period a year ago.”

The PADS Shelter sites at local churches are regularly turning away 10 to 20 people on Sunday through Thursday nights, because the shelters are at capacity. Less people are turned away on Friday and Saturday evenings, because they have back-up shelters those nights and greater capacity exists. Housing Forward is considering trying to add back-up shelters Sunday through Thursday. 

The number of families served since September is up 70 percent from the same time last year. Schueler said single moms with children are staying twice as long as in years past. Families are guaranteed shelter, which reduces the number of beds available for single adults. “As you might imagine, children in the shelter is not ideal for a host of reasons, but a reality that we are trying to manage with the resources we have,” Schueler said.

Even though Schueler has an impressive track record in the effort to end homelessness—since taking on the role of executive director in 2001 Housing Forward’s budget has grown from $450,000 a year to $7 million—she has no simple, “over the counter” solution to this crisis.  “Organizing more shelter sites and recruiting new crews of volunteers and meal groups doesn’t happen overnight,” Schueler said.  

For that reason, she has invited residents to a meeting later this month at St. Christopher Episcopal Church, 545 S. East Ave. in Oak Park, one of nine seasonal shelter sites that comprise the PADS shelter rotation, for an “open discussion about possible responses to what the PADS shelter is currently experiencing.” She will post the meeting date and time at a later date. 

The nonprofit Housing Forward began serving the homeless in 1992 when a group of local clergy from Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest formed what was known at the time as West Suburban PADS.  Since the first shelter site opened its doors at First United Church of Christ in Forest Park, PADS has served the needs of close to 17,000 people. PADS shelter sites are located in Forest Park, Oak Park and Berwyn.

Facing a need much larger than what available resources can handle is not a problem faced by Housing Forward alone. On the January 9th edition of NPR’s “Here and Now” program Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said, “Thirty-five percent of people who are homeless are not sheltered.  We have about 550,000 homeless people [in the U.S.] but only about 275,000 emergency beds. So this is something that causes issues when we have these kind of serious cold snaps.”