The faces of homelessness in Forest Park

21 students registered as homeless in District 91

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By Tom Holmes

Derrick Maynard has been homeless for two months. He had a falling out with his girlfriend and was kicked out of her home. He often hangs out at the McDonald's, 420 Desplaines Ave., during the day, since it's warm there, and he can use the washroom. He sits near the door, and opens it for people in wheelchairs or using walkers.

Patrons seem to sense his situation, strike up a conversation with him, buy him a cheeseburger or give him some spare change. One patron asked what being homeless was like. Maynard replied, "It's rough. I sleep on the el from about 11 p.m. on."

Maynard (we're using a pseudonym) is one face of homelessness in Forest Park. As temperatures drop, the need rises, since the risk of catching frostbite or hypothermia increases.   

"The most scary season of the year for a street homeless person begins really in November and ends in about March," said John Netherly, founder of the Forest Park-based Bedrock Movement, a nonprofit that serves those who choose to sleep on the street. He said the snow combined with the cold can cause a fatal frostbite. 

He recommended residents not approach those who appear homeless and ask if they need help.

"Let people who are experienced with this population such as the Bedrock Movement, social workers, street ministries, to offer them more in-depth help. … Use common sense and thank you for your compassion." 

Those interested in donating to the Bedrock Movement should call Netherly at 773-567-5110. He said they always need tents, sleeping bags, tarps, comforters, blankets, bikes and more. 

"Give passes to a homeless person so they can ride the train all night to stay warm. … But never give money. They will use cash for drugs and alcohol." 

Janet Gow, director of development and communication at Housing Forward, said their outreach workers are particularly concerned about a man who, like Derrick Maynard, who frequents the McDonald's, as well as the nearby corner of Desplaines and Madison and lives under the viaduct beneath the Blue Line.

"He sometimes talks to himself or into the universe to no one in particular," Gow said. "He is chronically homeless and has been staying in our shelters. We have tried to reach out to him with services but have been unsuccessful to date. We are concerned about his declining mental health."

Sometimes stories of homelessness have happy endings. They now have a large file of people they helped moved from being on the street to living in their own home. That, in fact, is why they rebranded three years ago, from West Suburban PADS. Housing Forward better conveys the agency's ultimate goal of getting folks off the street into a shelter, and then out of the shelter into their own homes.

"Bring the issue of homelessness to the attention of your friend groups, colleagues, and places of worship," Gow said. "We need the community to get involved in the larger solution to homelessness and that includes affordable housing." 

Pilar Shaker, director of the Forest Park Public Library, said many of the library's patrons who experience homelessness have nowhere else in our community to spend their days.  

One way community members can help, she said, is by donating to the library's Little Free Pantry, which is located outside the facility at 7555 Jackson Blvd. Shaker said residents can bring hats, gloves and non-perishable, easy-to-eat foods inside the pantry at any time.

When items are donated to the library's Little Free Food Pantry, library staff deliver them to the food pantry at the Howard Mohr Community Center.

During the winter, those who frequent the community center's food pantry decrease, said Meghan Dowdle, a volunteer. The pantry gives each person who comes in a big box of food — which includes canned vegetables, pasta, boxed food, and much more. It is quite heavy and hard to get home when sidewalks are icy and a car is not available. 

Karen Dylewski, director of the community center, estimated the boxes hold $40 worth of food. 

Dowdle wishes the community center had more staff so they could deliver more food to those who need it during the winter months. Deliveries are made at Thanksgiving time and then again during the Christmas holidays when summer day camp staff members are home from college, have access to cars, and are able to deliver boxes of food, including turkeys, at Thanksgiving and toys for children during the holidays.  

Louis Cavallo, District 91, said the district currently has 21 students who are classified as homeless, usually in the care of a single mom.  

He recalled a situation in which the children's mother was a nurse and the business the father owned went under, resulting in not being able to afford their mortgage.  

"They didn't tell anyone that they had lost their housing because they were embarrassed," he said. "We learned the family was homeless because their mail was being returned to the post office and that triggered a residency investigation." The parents told him their family was split apart, with children staying with relatives across the area. When he told them that, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, they qualified as being homeless, the parents burst into tears. "It was heart breaking," he said. 

"Sometimes people are homeless, because they choose to be," Cavallo said. "Sometimes it's because of mental illness and sometimes it's because one parent becomes incarcerated. But sometimes it happens to people like those two parents who in their wildest dreams never thought it would happen to them."

Cavallo said the community needs to get over its perception of what a homeless person looks like. 

"Homeless people are here in our buildings, our schools and our churches. I hear comments that the homeless don't live in Forest Park, that they take the el and get off here because it is the end of the Blue Line, but because our district office is right next to McDonald's, I see the same faces every day.

"Homeless people are part of our community," Cavallo said, "and we need to take care of them."

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