By Tom Holmes
Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward, said that by mid-November her staff will be turning some homeless people away from their shelters. There is a seasonal dynamic.
"Homelessness is a 365-day-a-year problem," she explained, "but the numbers seeking our services do tend to dip in summer. Some people prefer to sleep outside." Housing Forward made a decision 27 years ago to invest their limited resources in an emergency shelter that would be open mid-September to mid-May.
When the shelters opened in September, there was more than enough room in the nine houses of worship that host once a week. But as the temperature drops, the number increases until by November, the people seeking shelter exceed the capacity of each site, so a lottery determines who gets to sleep indoors and who is turned away.
A Chicago Tribune article, last Dec. 5, confirmed that the homeless population is growing. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Point in Time count, the article said, "193,000 people had no access to nightly shelter and instead were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other places considered uninhabitable. The unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago."
The need is especially great for families. School principals throughout the area confirm Schueler's assessment that there are 1,000 homeless kids in the West Cook area. Housing Forward's street outreach team reports a number of single moms are living in their cars while their children stay with friends or family. The moms, she explained, are not welcome themselves for various reasons in those homes.
They feel that homeless shelters are not appropriate environments for children, but they are not welcome to stay with their children.
"This summer," said Schueler, "we had a mom and her three children sleeping in the gazebo in Veterans Park in Maywood. In the cold months when shelters are open, the mom still resists going into a shelter because her autistic son has some behavioral issues, which the mom believes will make them not welcome."
About half of the homeless population is working but living paycheck to paycheck. The other half tends to have a physical or mental disability.
Housing Forward does have two churches serving as shelter sites on Fridays and two on Sundays, so twice a week there is room in the inn for everyone. Schueler would love to have two sites available the other five days of the week so no one would have to sleep in the cold. She would especially like more sites in Proviso Township which has only one site — St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park — and in Leyden Township which has none.
For congregations considering becoming a shelter site, one night a week the church would provide an area in their building with good egress, separated from areas used by other groups, such as a choir rehearsal. The area must have a full kitchen with a stove, refrigerator and storage space for supplies, and access to bathrooms.
Schueler said the program works because of the 1,000 volunteers. Because of turnover, new volunteers are always needed to be part of the set-up team, the meal team, the overnight team or the morning team. Hosting the program one night a week has a relatively low impact on the congregation, she said, because the morning teams clean and put everything back the way it was as if no one had been there.
Supplies needed currently include winter coats; toiletry items, and "house to home" kits. Lists of needed items and a way to contact Housing Forward can found at 222.housingforward.org/sites/default/files/House.