'This could happen to anybody': People will stay in vehicles, tents, boxes for homeless families
Veronica Horton, a case manager at Bridge Communities in Wheaton, knows what the homeless families she works with are going through because she's gone through it herself.
She says it happened in an instant 13 years ago.
"In the morning, I was making breakfast," she said. "And by evening, I was touring a homeless shelter," she said. "The next day, my two kids and I moved into Lazarus House."
That experience is why Horton will be one of more than 1,000 participants in Bridge Communities' 19th annual Sleep Out Saturday event to raise money and bring awareness to the issue of family homelessness.
More than 75 groups, including families, churches and businesses, will sleep outside Saturday in tents, cardboard boxes or cars in DuPage County. They will collect pledges to support program services and housing for the more than 100 families Bridge Communities serves each year.
Horton is taking it a step further. Beginning Friday, she will sleep in her van in a DuPage parking lot for as long as it takes her to raise $35,000.
"I'm prepared for it to be a week or whatever it takes," she said.
Margo Matthew of Bridge Communities says Sleep Out is the organization's biggest fundraiser and best opportunity to raise awareness.
"We really want to drive home the point that this could happen to anybody, co-workers, your kid's classmates at school," she said.
Matthew said there were over 1,900 homeless students in DuPage County schools last year, which equates to seven kids per school.
The mission of Bridge is to help homeless families become self-sufficient, working with over 100 community partners.
Matthew said the organization provides safe housing, volunteer mentoring, employment counseling, nutrition counseling, children's services, scholarships for teens and adults for continued education, and donated cars. Case managers help stabilize the family quickly by getting them into housing where they can live for up to two years.
While the event is Saturday, people can choose to sleep out on any date between now and Dec. 3.
An outdoor rally will be held in partnership with the College of DuPage from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lakeside Pavilion on the school's Glen Ellyn campus. Participants and the public can enjoy soup and bread made and served by COD culinary arts students in addition to music, prizes, a $250 raffle and T-shirts for all Sleep Out participants.
Anyone interested in sleeping out or sponsoring someone participating can visit sleepoutsaturday.org.
This year's fundraising goal is $125,000. The event has raised more than $1 million through the years.
Giving others hope
To outsiders, Horton, whose children were 5 and 12 at the time, didn't seem like a candidate to end up homeless. She says that's not uncommon.
"It's your neighbors. It's your friends," she said. "It can happen in the blink of an eye. There are so many families that are one disaster away from being homeless."
Her disaster involved fleeing quickly from domestic violence.
"I found myself in a bathroom calling police and then shoving everything we needed into garbage bags," she said. "It happened so fast."
Horton and her children lived at the St. Charles shelter for nine months.
"When I became homeless, I had to choose," she said. "Do you wallow in self-pity? Or do you stand up, brush off the dirt and figure out what you're doing?"
She saw school as the ticket to a better life for her family. She graduated from Waubonsee Community College, then Aurora University and ultimately got her master's degree from Concordia University.
She's been a case manager at Bridge Communities more than a year.
"Sometimes people come in and they're a little defensive and nervous. There's a whole gambit of feelings," she said. "I'll tell just a snippet about my experience, and I see their shoulders drop, and they're like, 'Oh, you get it.' It allows me to relate to them and establish this immediate trust and connection."
She says she won't go home until reaching her fundraising goal, though she will go to work every day. She'll clean up and get ready in the morning in Bridge's bathroom and maybe try to grab a shower at a local gym.
"I want this to be as close to authentic as possible," she said.
Horton says she's honored to be able to help people and give back what was given to her at the hardest time of her life.
"You have hope and faith. Without those things, you don't have anything," she said. "When you're able to provide that for somebody else, that's everything."