News & Events

Dec 4, 2009

Suburban Homeless Population Grows; Shelter Crunch Worsens


Crowded and underfunded, suburban shelters turned away an increasing number of homeless last year and already have done it this year...

By Robert Channick
Chicago Tribune
December 4, 2009

It's a lagging economic indicator of the harshest kind. Even as the recession begins to wane, a growing suburban homeless population may be facing a long, cold winter, with little or no room at local emergency shelters.

Crowded and underfunded, suburban shelters turned away an increasing number of homeless last year and already have done it this year even though temperatures have been above normal since October, the traditional start of shelter season.

"We're bracing ourselves, we're preparing ourselves for it to be worse," said Cathryn Perfetti, director of McHenry County PADS in Woodstock, which last winter saw twice as many homeless people as beds at some of its nine shelter sites.

With foreclosures and job losses hitting even the most affluent communities, some of the people seeking shelter are far from street savvy and having to cut them loose is particularly painful for shelter personnel.

"We are seeing people who have no survival skills for homelessness," said Beth Nabors, executive director of Palatine-based Journeys from PADS to HOPE, with 19 church sites in northwest suburban Cook County. "They have absolutely no life experience to pull from."

Even in the face of obvious need for expansion, the half-dozen nonprofit organizations that form PADS, a de facto emergency infrastructure for the suburban displaced, doubt it will happen. One reason is that state and federal funding for the homeless is not only down, but being redirected to emphasize finding more permanent housing instead of emergency shelter. Other factors are that shelters can be controversial, and volunteers difficult to recruit and keep.

In Chicago, only 5 percent of the shelter beds were vacant in 2009, down from 12 percent in 2008. That led Mayor Richard Daley to propose allocating $700,000 in the 2010 budget to increase capacity by about 28,000 shelter nights.

Adding capacity is far more challenging in the suburbs.

"Because the PADS model in particular is based on church sites and volunteer efforts, it's not always a simple matter to just expand capacity," said Jennifer Hill, executive director of Alliance to End Homelessness, the coordinating body for homeless housing and service providers in suburban Cook County.

PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) uses rotating faith-based sites and an army of volunteers to provide nightly refuge. Most operate from October to April.

Although churches consider it part of their mission to tend to the needy, housing the homeless can evoke concern among neighbors and parishioners.

Last year for example, a plan to open a PADS shelter in Park Ridge was abandoned after residents objected to the use of two church sites.

Getting enough volunteers for a new shelter also can be difficult.

"For every site, there's four to six support congregations," said Carol Simler, executive director of DuPage PADS. "We work with over 4,000 volunteers and more than 130 congregations to provide this interim housing."

PADS sites are constantly recruiting volunteers just to maintain the current level of service. Responding quickly to increased demand is beyond their means.

In the suburbs, the homeless are scattered and less visible, making an accurate count problematic. A 2009 survey showed suburban Cook County's daily homeless population to be 1,190 -- down slightly from 2007. Other surveys show a 24 percent increase over the same time frame in suburban Cook County, and far more dramatic increases in collar counties.

But surveys don't capture the grim truth on the streets and at shelters -- emergency beds are scarce. From Chicago Heights to Waukegan, demand has outstripped supply, with shelters resorting to lotteries and free bus passes out of town to handle the overflow.

DuPage PADS works with 21 congregations to provide nightly shelter to about 140 homeless people. Last year, the Wheaton-based group turned away hundreds of people.

"It is a very invisible population out here in DuPage," Simler said. "But it's a stark reality for one of the wealthiest counties in the nation that we do have homeless and, in fact, it is rising."

South Suburban PADS, based in Chicago Heights, saw a 30 percent increase last year in the number of shelter nights at its 29 sites, with about 33,000 people through June. With creative use of space, the group barely avoided turning people away, said Mike Wasserberg, executive director.

"We were way beyond what capacity would normally be considered," he said. "You would like to be able to provide everybody with a pad to sleep on, but sometimes when the numbers get so high, it's just getting someone in out of the cold and being able to provide them three meals and give them a place to put their head down, even if it's on a table."

At Maywood-based West Suburban PADS, nearly 600 people were turned away last winter at its 12 sites. Crowding is so acute that a nightly lottery is held to determine who gets the 40 to 70 beds. The unlucky ones get a bus ticket to Chicago and a list of referrals.

"They put their PADS ID card in a hat and we literally pull names," said Lynda Schueler, executive director. "The volunteers hate doing it, certainly the guests hate waiting outside, knowing that they may not get in that night."

Experts say the situation is likely to get worse, even as the economy improves.

"There's always kind of a delay between an economic crisis and larger numbers of homeless," said Nicole Amling, director of public policy for Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. "If someone was to lose their job ... they would use any available means of credit or stay with family or friends -- kind of max out all of their other options before heading to a program that serves homeless individuals."

Shelters are dealing with a shift in focus and funding toward transitional and permanent housing.

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $1.5 billion for homeless prevention and re-housing.

About $70 million of the stimulus funding was allocated to Illinois, but none for emergency shelters.

The state cut homeless funding for 2010 by $12.7 million.

"We're not really advocating for a huge expansion of emergency inventory, even though there have been turn-aways," Hill said. "Instead, we're advocating that the prevention resources be shored up and the ability to re-house people gets emphasized."

Even if that makes sense long term, the Chicago Community Trust believes emergency shelter is needed now because of the magnitude of the economic crisis. It is funding the $4 million Unity Challenge, which includes $500,000 to support 25 area shelters. "We had been, for the last eight years, organizing our grant strategies around ... moving people into permanent housing and reducing the need for homeless shelters," said Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Trust. But "we are reinstituting grant-making priorities that we had been moving away from as the economy was relatively robust."

West Suburban PADS received a $784,000 stimulus grant from Oak Park and a $364,000 grant from Cook County to help move people into transitional and permanent housing. It sees that as providing some relief from crowding at emergency facilities.

"If we can free up beds, then we can accommodate more people who show up at the emergency shelter door," Schueler said.