When hundreds of people pitch tents this weekend in DuPage County for "Sleep Out Saturday" to raise funds for the homeless, they will learn firsthand what it's like to spend a chilly night without the benefit of four walls and a roof.
But perhaps more important, the event will raise awareness of a big-city problem that now has a firm grip on the suburbs.
The Sleep Out participants' newfound empathy will be key to understanding the challenges of homelessness and perhaps even help motivate the public to be part of the solution. But the homeless story goes much deeper than what we see outdoors. In fact, many people who have lost their homes -- often single parents with young children -- struggle to find a corner of a friend's living room to stay for a night or two, huddle at a shelter or catch a few hours of sleep cramped in a cold car.
Indeed, this is the newer face of the homeless in the suburbs, and one that deserves our consistent attention. In seemingly affluent DuPage County alone, nearly 1,300 schoolchildren were identified as homeless last year. Children facing this stress often lag behind in school and suffer from emotional and behavioral problems.
The homeless in the suburbs aren't out-of-towners passing through; they are people among us who suddenly have lost jobs or family support. While the country crawls back financially from the recession, thousands of residents have not been able to escape the poverty they tumbled into.
"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," Mark Milligan told Daily Herald reporter Robert Sanchez in a story published Sunday. Milligan is president of Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit, and the organizer of the Sleep Out.
We can take heart at the efforts being made. Last week an anonymous donor paid $30,000 in overdue heating bills for two Chicago women's shelters. While such donations are more the exception than the rule, there is no shortage of fundraising going on in the suburbs. A quick scan of recent headlines on dailyherald.com shows a tailgate party in South Barrington, a "Scaryoke" event in Mount Prospect, a children's concert in Naperville -- all raising funds for shelters. Police and Scouts collect coats for the homeless. Wheaton-based PADS coordinates with dozens of churches to provide a bed and a hot meal.
Charity fills some of the gaps that government cannot reach, but perhaps there's more our elected officials could do, despite the financial constraints. A large portion of homeless still includes veterans, the mentally ill and drug addicts. We need a comprehensive approach and strong leadership that will bring about more affordable housing in new developments, job training and services for the mentally ill. Public-private partnerships like a new village loan program in Mundelein can help increase the number of affordable homes in suburban neighborhoods.
Homelessness is a complex problem -- one that weighs on all of us and demands creative solutions.