DuPage's Sleep Out Saturday reminder of homelessness
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Alecia Hannemann went from being hopeful to homeless on the same night.
After reconciling with the father of her young son, Hannemann was planning to buy a townhouse with him in November 2010.
But the day before Thanksgiving, the former Lake in the Hills residents learned the deal for the home had fallen through. That evening, Hannemann's on-again, off-again boyfriend left the Schaumburg hotel room where they were staying to walk the dog. He never came back.
Hannemann, who was unemployed, needed to find a place to live with her son.
"Thanksgiving morning I packed up all of our stuff, knocked on my mom's front door and asked her if we could stay with her because he (the boyfriend) was gone," the 27-year-old recalled.
What Hannemann went through is becoming increasingly common as a growing number of suburban families confront the possibility of homelessness. To combat the problem, roughly 2,000 DuPage County residents will forgo their beds on Nov. 2 as part of Sleep Out Saturday.
The 10th annual event is organized by Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit group that helps homeless families get back on their feet. The goal of Sleep Out Saturday is to educate the public about the plight of homeless people and raise money for housing programs.
Participants will spend the night outside at about 75 sites across DuPage County, including yards and parking lots. They will sleep in boxes, tents and cars.
"People ask us why we didn't do it in July," said Mark Milligan, co-founder and president of Bridge Communities. "We do not want this to be a camping trip. We want some discomfort involved because this is when homeless people sleep out as well."
Hannemann and her son never had to sleep outside. Still, they had to rely on the generosity of others for temporary shelter.
When they stayed with Hannemann's mother, they shared a two-bedroom townhouse in West Chicago with five other people. It soon became clear the crowded situation couldn't last.
Hannemann's mother gave her until the end of July 2011 to find her own place.
"I was scared because I didn't know what I was going to do," Hannemann said. "I didn't want to let my mom down because I knew where she was coming from. I didn't want to let my son down because he deserves the world."
In February 2011, Hannemann got a part-time job with the Wheaton Park District. And just weeks before she had to leave her mom's townhouse, Bridge accepted Hannemann's application to enter its program.
Bridge partners with churches and other groups to provide about two years of housing assistance and life skills mentoring to qualified clients. Additional services include tutoring, financial counseling, employment training and vehicle repairs.
The help Bridge provided made it possible for Hannemann to start a new life. Now she works full time as an administrative assistant with the park district. She can pay her bills, including the rent for her Carol Stream apartment, and has a savings account. Most importantly, her 6-year-old son, Aidan, is happy.
"Everything fell into place," she said. "This is as stable as it (life) has been for a very long, long time."
Each year, Bridge Communities' transitional housing program serves about 120 families. Still, that falls short of meeting the demand for help, Milligan said.
"This unemployment situation that we've had with so many people losing their jobs and so many people losing their housing is still going on," Milligan said. "It's still impacting the people of DuPage County."
Despite the area's reputation as affluent, 1,287 students in the county were identified as homeless during the 2012-13 school year, according to the DuPage Regional Office of Education.
Lynn Strevell, the county's homeless student advocate, said she believes the actual number is higher.
"The demographics are changing here dramatically," Strevell said. "There's also the situational poverty that we've experienced pretty dramatically since 2008 with the number of foreclosures and families losing their houses."
Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, said there has been a huge growth in poverty over the past 15 years in DuPage.
"Homelessness is inextricably linked to poverty," King said. "Nobody who is not poor would be homeless."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20,948 people living in DuPage were below the poverty level in 1990. That number climbed to 70,073 by 2011.
During the same time period, the poverty population in suburban Cook County more than doubled from 120,957 to 275,768.
In 2011, the number of people living in poverty in Kane, Lake and McHenry counties totaled 67,635, 78,190 and 28,226, respectively.
The federal poverty level is defined as a person earning $11,490 or a household of four with an income of $23,550.
Meanwhile, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in DuPage is about $1,000, according to Milligan.
It was an expense Jaleen Rodriguez couldn't afford when she ended a bad relationship several years ago.
The 24-year-old single mother of two young children was forced to live with her parents after moving out of the Hoffman Estates apartment she shared with a former boyfriend.
Rodriguez wanted to live on her own, but her job at a day care facility didn't pay enough.
Since she started getting help from Bridge in 2011, Rodriguez has been able to get her own apartment and return to college. In addition to working part time, Rodriguez is a full-time student studying elementary education at College of DuPage and Lewis University. She hopes to become a teacher.
"I'm working my way toward a career," she said.
Rodriguez said she's come a long way because of the assistance she received from Bridge and other groups.
King said the organizations working to help homeless people are doing a good job of providing resources. Still, she said, there's always a need for more.
So when DuPage residents on Nov. 2 see groups of people sleeping outside in boxes, King said she hopes it will help sensitize them to the issue of homelessness.
"I would like to see communities be more understanding of the forces that cause people to be homeless," King said, "and be more willing to address it."
The Nov. 2 Sleep Out Saturday event will begin with a 7 p.m. outdoor rally at 505 Crescent Blvd. in downtown Glen Ellyn.
For more information, visit bridgecommunities.org.
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