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Article updated: 7/20/2013 10:39 AM

Suburban homeless shelters, agencies say need is greater than ever

Suburban homeless shelters, agencies say need is greater than ever

By Kimberly Pohl

Employment, housing and stock market gauges may indicate a recovering economy, but agencies that work with the suburban homeless population say the demand is greater than ever.

Advocates gladly would welcome the same outpouring of support that Daily Herald readers have shown to Rosan Acosta, a homeless Arlington Heights woman whose belongings were destroyed this week by an arsonist.

"Her story is not a unique one, unfortunately," said Joel Williams, executive director of PADS Lake County. "There are a lot of people who are in desperate need of help."

That's especially true in Northwest suburban Cook County, where Palatine-based Journeys the Road Home has had such an overwhelming increase in clients -- and a 16 percent drop in donations -- that this year the agency borrowed money for the first time in its 25-year history.

In 2012, Journeys helped 700 people who were either homeless or on the cusp. Already this year, 1,400 clients have come in.

"We've been white-knuckling it for some time and we're not recovering," Executive Director Beth Nabors said. "We're not able to sustain this."

The increase in demand is the result of a number of factors, from Journeys expanding its preventive services to clients exhausting their unemployment benefits. Many can't keep up with rising rents and property taxes.

Clothes, toiletries, food, gift cards, bicycles and transit cards routinely appear on an agency's wish list. But leaders also emphasized a dire need for money.

Nabors said effective agencies have overhead expenses. Journeys, for instance, offers vocational, mental health and supportive counseling, as well as case management and weekly medical care from a nurse practitioner. The majority of counselors on staff are certified, have master's degrees or are doctoral candidates.

These are the services that can't be done by volunteers, yet are crucial to getting a homeless person out of "survival" mode and into a more secure way of life, she said.

"We need people to have a charitable heart and open their eyes to see homelessness is all around," said Nabors, adding that Journeys' PADS shelters make up just 10 percent of the operation.

"I want people to realize that they could be in the same boat (as Acosta) on any given day. All it takes is a medical catastrophe, the loss of a job with no savings or divorce to be right where she is."

Sue Rose, community service director of the McHenry County Housing Authority, said the demographics of the suburban homeless population have drastically changed in the 18 years she's been with the agency.

Historically, homeless people were single men with substance abuse problems and single moms with young kids, Rose said. Today, there are more homeless families and seniors than ever.

"The people who used to donate to the charities are now the ones asking for assistance," Rose said.

Williams, of PADS Lake County, said his agency served more than 1,800 homeless people in fiscal year 2012, the most in its history. Contributing to the growth was a 68 percent increase in seniors and an 18 percent increase in families.

The number of mentally ill people and veterans also saw big gains.

Some federal statistics show homelessness is on the decline based on an annual count all counties are required to take. Suburban advocates universally dismiss the figures as grossly inaccurate.

Those counts are based on a single night in January when shelters record their clients, and volunteers scour certain underpasses, vacant buildings and other places known to be hangouts.

But it's impossible to thoroughly cover an entire county in a matter of hours, DuPage PADS Executive Director Carol Simler said.

For example, in 2012 the official count of homeless people in DuPage County was 641, she said. Yet, there were 1,398 different homeless people who stayed in DuPage PADS shelters over the course of the year.

Rose, of McHenry County, said officials are discussing ways to generate more accurate figures because federal funding is tied largely to the population.

"Those of us who work in the trenches know the numbers are deceivingly low," she said.

Acosta, who in the past few days has gotten a new bike to replace the one that was destroyed, help with her resume, toiletries and clothes, said she encounters homeless people from all across the spectrum.

Some, like herself, are educated and have resumes ready to go.

"But there are a lot of others who are disabled and don't have the ability to work."

Advocates encourage people such as Acosta to get hooked up with an agency so they can receive consistent services.

"Our goal is to get people into a shelter when they need it, but get them into something more sustainable and appropriate," Williams said.

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