The continuing economic crisis is taking a particular toll on children, as more families are being forced into homeless shelters across the suburbs, representatives from those facilities say.
The number of children seeking beds at shelters run by DuPage PADS is up 65 percent over the last two years, said Tim Walker, the organization's development director.
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How to help
Here's some phone numbers to call for information about helping local PADS organizations and shelters:
DuPage PADS: (630) 682-3846
Journey from PADS to HOPE, Palatine: (847) 963-9163
Lazarus House, St. Charles: (630) 587-2144
McHenry PADS: (815) 338-6289
PADS Crisis Center (North Chicago): (847) 689-4357
West Suburban PADS: (708) 338-1724
PADS in Elgin: (847) 608-9744
Hesed House (Aurora): (630) 897-2156
At the Lazarus House in St. Charles, the figure is up a staggering 143 percent from a year ago.
"It is horrid," said Liz Eakins, the associate director at Lazarus House, which serves western Kane County. "It shouldn't be that children are without homes, especially at Christmastime."
Independently run, Lazarus House and the various suburban PADS groups provide warming centers, showers, beds, food and other assistance to homeless people.
Some shelter organizations only operate seasonal centers, typically opening in October. Others offer year-round help for people in need.
In DuPage County, the overall number of people who are seeking shelter this season is about the same as a year ago, Walker said except when it comes to children.
"And it's snowballing," he said.
The situation has gotten so severe, DuPage PADS now operates a family-only shelter at rotating sites in Downers Grove, Naperville and Clarendon Hills every night.
Walker believes homelessness among families is on the rise now, rather than when the recession began a few years ago, because struggling families had a few years to spend their savings before losing their homes.
And before turning to shelters, many families sought help by staying with compassionate relatives, Eakins said. But as their personal financial struggles continued, "maybe that compassion is wearing a little bit thin," she said.
The increase in homeless families is particularly heartbreaking because many are people who had been our neighbors, taxpayers who had been living productive lives until recently, said Beth Nabors, executive director of the Palatine-based Journeys from PADS to HOPE group.
The image of a disheveled alcoholic on a park bench no longer applies.
"You have people coming to your door really paralyzed, not knowing where to turn," Nabors said. "And there's so much embarrassment and shame with becoming homeless that many times they wait before they request help."
Being homeless deeply affects children, said Todd Stull, who supervises counseling services as the clinical director for PADS to HOPE.
"The chaos of not having one home base where they can go to every night and have a place to study and have dinner and sleep can lead to some long-term trust issues and acting out," Stull said.
Classroom disruptions, fighting, declining grades and petty thefts are not uncommon, he said.
"We definitely see that with kids who are in our system for more than a week or two," Stull said.
As a result, the organization tries to move families from their shelters to rental units, relatives or transitional housing within two weeks of arrival, Stull said.
The problem of homelessness isn't limited to children, of course.
The Lake County PADS organization served 813 clients this past October, up nearly 32 percent from 618 a year earlier.
On one recent night, 71 people, including 15 children, filled a church shelter site in Grayslake.
"We almost had to turn people away," said Randy Rossi, a Lake County PADS board member. "Where they would go, I have no idea."
Officials say job loss and foreclosures have fueled a need for shelter. Veterans and other individuals with mental health issues have added to the demand.
"More families. More single, middle-aged women. Evictions. Loss of jobs," said Cathy Curran, executive director of the Lake County PADS. "We have just seen so many more people than last year."
In northern Kane County and Hanover Township, the overall demand has increased only slightly. But as in the other regions, more children are being served, said Dennis Hewitt, executive director of PADS of Elgin.
As of last week, 42 children had sought shelter through the agency, compared with 23 all of last year, he said.
Similar increases have been reported in southern Kane County, McHenry County and elsewhere.
Matt Kostecki, executive director of the McHenry County PADS group, is optimistic about the future, however.
"Hopefully the employment market will get up to par and people will get back to work," he said.