Shortly after a fire destroyed her Wheaton apartment and forced her into homelessness for the second -- yes, second -- time in her life, Jill Markussen slept in a tent in a parking lot.
She braved bitter cold not because she had to, but because she wanted to shine a spotlight on homeless families in DuPage County through Sleep Out Saturday, the largest fundraiser for Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities. The nonprofit organization provides transitional housing and other services to more than 100 families each year in DuPage.
Markussen and her family moved into the Wheaton apartment after spending 2½ years in Bridge Communities' transitional housing program. Despite her own tragedies, Markussen "broke down and started crying" looking at the rows of tents during a Sleep Out Saturday two years ago when volunteers sleep outside in tents, boxes and cars to raise awareness of homelessness.
"Just when you think you had it bad, you realize there are people out there that have it so much worse," said Markussen, who now lives in a Bartlett townhouse and works for the county as a senior case manager and transitional coordinator.
An expected 2,000 participants will sleep outdoors in more than 25 DuPage communities for the ninth annual event Saturday, Nov. 3. An outdoor rally is set for 7 p.m. at Bridge Communities, 505 Crescent Blvd.
Last year, the event raised more than $130,000 to support the transitional housing program, which teams clients with mentors and Bridge officials in employment training, tutoring for homeless children and counseling. Roughly 300 volunteer mentors meet weekly with families.
Most families spend about two years in the program, said Amy Van Polen, Bridge's resource development director.
"We try to be holistic as possible," Van Polen said. "We definitely look at how we can support both generations, both the parents and the children."
It's an approach backed by a troubling statistic: The average age of a DuPage homeless person is 8.
Bridge families often are single moms with several children. Close to 200 children younger than 18 are currently in the program.
"Most of our clients come to us working," Van Polen said.
Underlying the face of homelessness in DuPage are several factors, she said.
"It's a combination of low-paying service jobs that they are qualified to work coupled with the high cost of housing and high cost of child care," Van Polen said. "You put those things together and very quickly it becomes very difficult to sustain housing in this area."
While Markussen is unable to participate in Sleep Out Saturday this year (she'll be watching her son at his high school volleyball match), she is a supporter of homeless families year-round as co-founder and executive director of Project Flipmode, an organization that sponsors families facing homelessness and other crises with prayer and donations.
She also organizes the annual "New Face of Homelessness" symposium at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, where she took classes during most of her time in the Bridge transitional housing program and graduated in 2010. Last December, she earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from Governors State University. She's considering whether to pursue a master's degree.
During her time at COD, Markussen took a class in the human services program. Her professor assigned a reflection paper on the topic of homelessness.
Markussen decided to write about how she lost her job as a senior executive in the mortgage industry when her company filed for bankruptcy in 2007. About how, months later, the single mom and her three younger children lost their home. At her professor's urging, Markussen told her classmates she was homeless.
"They were floored," Markussen said. "After all that, I wasn't treated any different."
Jason Florin, an assistant professor in the human services program, says Markussen is one of the reasons COD students participate in Sleep Out Saturday. The symposium she organizes launches the event, rallying students to raise money and serve in the community, Florin said.
"A lot of our students and faculty really draw on her for inspiration," Florin said.
The Plainfield man will join at least 25 students in the Human Services Network, a student club, sleeping in tents Saturday at Maryknoll Park in Glen Ellyn. They hope to raise $2,000 for Bridge Communities. Details on sponsoring the group are at bridgecommunities.org/group6.
Markussen pledges to continue to advocate for all populations facing homelessness, "and try to put an end to the stigma that people are homeless by choice," she said.
For details, call (630) 545-0610 or visit bridgecommunities.org.