Volunteer Samuel Muniz places bedding in the women's section of a PADS shelter at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park Friday. (David Pierini/staff photographer)

Housing Forward is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Since the nonprofit’s founding in 1992, the agency has served 17,000 homeless people and has grown from an all-volunteer organization to one with a staff of over 70 and a budget of $13 million.

When the word got out in 1991 that an informal group of clergy in Forest Park was planning with their colleagues in Oak Park and River Forest to open a homeless shelter, many residents in town pushed back.

First, they said, we don’t have any homeless people in town. And second, they argued that a shelter would attract homeless people from the city who would bring crime and disease along with them.

Marty Moy, a police officer in the village at the time, served as a witness that there definitely were homeless folks in town, even though they might be invisible to most residents. Moy was, and still is, a member of First United Church of Christ, whose building was used as the very first site when Tri-Village PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) opened in 1992.

Moy remembers that day in October, 1992. Mattresses had been laid out on the floor, a meal was prepared, and volunteers were in place to take care of the expected crowd. But no one showed up.

In the three decades since that inauspicious beginning, the organization now called Housing Forward has gone through four stages of growth and change.

Housing Forward is not a religious organization per se, but without local churches it would not exist, let alone survived and grown as an institution — in the scope of its service area, in the number of clients served, and in maturity as an organization.

In the first few years, a model was adopted which has lasted for 28 years. It includes an emergency shelter program which rotates every night from church to church and/or synagogue. Until 2020 when COVID struck, the gym at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park served as the Friday site.

The routine at each site was the same. The volunteer site captain, along with the set up team, would arrive around 6 p.m. to set up tables and arrange the mattresses for about 40 people on the floor with a separate section for women and children. Around 6:30 the dinner team would carry in already prepared food and/or start cooking what they were making from scratch.

Clients would enter the facility at 7:30 and pick out a mattress for the night. The dinner team and the set-up team would serve the 40-50 people sitting at the tables.

Until COVID, the dinner team for the third Friday evening came from St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church. Clients enjoyed fried rice and Thai spiced chicken legs made from scratch, which were always on the menu.

Rev. David Mercurio, pastor of the Thai congregation, said they have been serving meals for almost all of those three decades out of a sense of gratitude.

“Helping the misfortunate, the disenfranchised and the marginalized,” Mercurio said, “is actually our opportunity to give God thanks for what He has done for us. And anyone who has ever had the privilege of volunteering for organizations like Housing Forward knows how much of a good feeling and a blessing we receive from doing so.”

Moy echoed that. “Some of the clients who were here were like family to us. One had three generations — a grandmother, a mother and two kids. From what I hear the two kids are very successful now. If we had not been here to take care of folks who needed help, we don’t know what may have happened.”

Peter Tessalee added, “Talking and interacting with the people there, I get to hear their stories, and I can see that they feel thankful. Usually I leave there with a sense of needing to do more.”

“They make us happy,” said Saitong Uramporn. “They can make us smile, too, when we tease each other.”

Chiraphon Chummongkhon, who was away from Thailand for a few years studying psychology, experienced her time in the shelter from the perspective of a sojourner in a foreign land. “When I go to feed the homeless, I feel like I am also homeless myself. I can benefit them and they thank me. We can both share the feeling.”

In 1999 the nonprofit changed its name to West Suburban PADS because its service area was expanding from the three original villages to what would eventually become 26 communities in the western suburbs.

During its first 15 years, PADS had evolved into an agency with a $1.3 million budget and a professional staff of 15. They expanded the types of services offered to include a daytime support center, case management for those suffering from substance abuse, mental health and medical problems, and services to help prevent homelessness.

That necessitated enlarging the office space. Mary Richie was the secretary of the agency’s board of directors at the time. 

“At first,” she recalled, “our offices were in the basement of a church in Maywood, but unfortunately it flooded when it rained.”

The organization moved to what used to be the convent at St. Bernardine Catholic Church here in town and then to its present location at 1851 S. Ninth Ave. in Maywood. 

Perhaps the most significant event during this chapter of the Housing Forward story was the hiring of Lynda Schueler in 2001 who has served as the agency’s executive director ever since.

Heidi Vance, co-owner of Team Blonde on Madison Street and currently Housing Forward’s board president, used the words “nimble and creative” to describe the board and Schueler, who started as director in 2001.

An example is a program they ran until 2017 with the West Cook YMCA called Interim Housing. Pursuing their goal of prevention, the program provided an SRO (single room occupancy) room for single men at a budget price. Phil Jimenez, current director of the Y, described the program as dealing with the issue “upstream.”

On Dec. 31, 2015, West Suburban PADS announced it was entering the new year with a new name, Housing Forward, explaining that in 1992 “the agency began as a provider of overnight emergency shelter for homeless individuals,” but its mission had evolved to “transition people from housing crisis to housing stability.”

The announcement added that the name was changed “to better convey the comprehensive nature of its solution to homelessness.”

Two years ago, Betty and Joe (not their real names) were panhandling on the off-ramp from the Eisenhower to Harlem Avenue during the day, and sleeping in a tent in a secluded part of Forest Park at night. A concerned Forest Parker assisted them in getting into an emergency shelter and around Thanksgiving of 2020, Housing Forward moved them into their own apartment, where they have been living ever since.

The rotating emergency shelter site model proved sustainable for 28 years, and then COVID-19 hit, forcing the agency to pivot. On March 12, 2020, it shifted almost overnight from a congregate shelter model to housing clients in separate rooms in four different hotels in the area.

Board President Vance recalled that day. 

“I’m so proud of how the board was nimble in supporting Lynda in making the literally life-and-death quick changes caused by COVID.”

The move into four hotels was a life saver in the short run but not sustainable organizationally or financially even with help from FEMA. Then help arrived.

“The village of Oak Park,” Vance said, “approached Lynda about making the Write Inn the single location where all clients would be housed, a move which would be more sustainable in the long term, make it much easier for case workers to connect with clients, allow clients to get into permanent housing more quickly and improve their overall health.”

That opened up the possibility of creating 15 units (housing up to 19 people) dedicated to Housing Forward’s Medical Respite Program which provides a place for homeless people who are going in for a procedure, such as a colonoscopy, and shelter for folks with nowhere to go after surgery.

Vance also acknowledged that there have been homeless clients who don’t fit neatly into the Housing Forward model, which views clients as having a run of bad luck, needing a safe place to get back on their feet, and fairly quickly getting back to a job and their own home.

“We are building in Broadview a facility,” she said, “which for now we refer to as Permanent Supportive Housing Broadview (PSHB) for people who essentially cannot live unattended, can’t find the means to fund themselves and/or need more onsite case management.”

Lynda Schueler reports that, at present, 70% of the Interim Housing Program clients they have served in the first year of the program are no longer homeless but living in permanent housing. 

Housing Forward will celebrate their three-decade milestone at their Have-a-Heart Gala 2022 at the JW Marriott in Chicago on May 21.