Homeless need urgent after loss of shelter
Demand for space in Lake County's homeless shelters has increased since last winter, leaving the PADS Lake County organization struggling to find room for everyone on some cold nights.
The crisis has been caused, in part, by the loss of one of the agency's rotating shelters, said Executive Director Joel Williams.
But even more troubling is the worsening problem of family homelessness in Lake County.
"We have seen an increase in the number of families and the length of stay that those families have had to endure," Williams said.
The situation varies elsewhere in the suburbs. Some homeless assistance agencies report increased demand, while others have seen numbers stay the same or drop.
To meet the rising need in Lake County, Williams said he is looking for churches or civic groups to volunteer their buildings as shelters this winter. Sites for Wednesday and Friday nights especially are needed.
"Any location within Lake County will help," he said.
Busier than usual
Although PADS serves homeless people year-round, the nonprofit organization is busiest from Oct. 1 to April 30.
Normally in October, the Lake County agency assists 30 or 40 people each night. This October, however, 60 or more people sought shelter each night, Williams said.
The number grew in November. On any given night, 85 or 90 people could be found in Lake County's homeless shelters, Williams said. Once again, that was more people than usual for the month.
DuPage County's DuPagePads group has experienced a similar increase in demand for beds this season, said President and CEO Carol Simler.
The number of homeless families seeking assistance at DuPagePads centers in November increased 38 percent from the same month in 2014, Simler said. The number of individual homeless people seeking shelter jumped 13 percent, she said.
The demographic group that experienced the biggest jump was children, Simler said.
Fifty-three percent more kids went to DuPagePads shelters last month than in November 2014.
"It's sad, isn't it?" Simpler said. "That's our future."
Not every Chicago-area homeless agency has seen demand for shelter increase.
In Northwest suburban Cook County, the number of people seeking beds at 18 shelters operated by a group called Journeys: The Road Home, was about the same in October and November as for those two months in 2014, said Suzanne Ploger, the agency's development director.
And the Pioneer Center for Human Services, which oversees McHenry County's PADS system, actually has seen a slight drop in demand so far this season.
"Consumers have stated that because of mild weather conditions, they are waiting as long as possible to enter the overnight shelter system," said Christin Kruse, Pioneer's chief development officer.
Down one site
But the situation is more critical in Lake County.
Not only is the demand greater, but there are fewer beds because St. Anastasia Church in Waukegan dropped out of the PADS program due to a construction project at the church.
That move left the agency with 14 shelters.
PADS typically operates two rotating sites every night, plus a daytime resource center in Waukegan. A third overnight shelter operates Tuesdays.
No night of the week is automatically busier than the others, Williams said. Demand generally is weather-driven.
This winter, the shelters are at churches in Deerfield, Grayslake, Indian Creek, Lake Villa, Libertyville, Lindenhurst, Mundelein, Wauconda, Waukegan and Zion. A list of PADS locations and a schedule can be found at: padslakecounty.org/how-you-help/volunteer/times.
The Foss Park District's community center in North Chicago often serves as an overflow site when demand exceeds available space. However, the center has been used regularly on Friday nights this season because St. Anastasia Church dropped out, Williams said.
That means PADS doesn't have any options if demand exceeds capacity on Fridays, Williams said, making the need for a new shelter that night critical.
Finding an additional site Wednesdays is important, too, Williams said, because the two shelters operating that night -- Shiloh Baptist Church in Waukegan and St. Mary's Fremont Center Church near Mundelein -- are relatively small, with room for 75 people total.
"That requires overflow to open almost regularly," Williams said.
Once homeless people arrive at a PADS shelter, the organization works to get them into subsidized or independent housing as quickly as possible, Williams said.
That's especially true for families. But sadly, Williams said, it's becoming more difficult.
"We used to be able to get most families out of the shelter in about a week, but some have been here for well over a month," he said. "This not only is heartbreaking, but (it) puts a strain on the entire system."
PADS formerly referred many women and their children to a Catholic Charities program called Samaritan House for transitional housing, but that shut down this summer.
"There are now fewer options for them," Williams said.
Bouncing from shelter to shelter each night is a struggle for adults, he said. It's worse for children.
"Without a regular place to do homework, they struggle in school," Williams said. "Sleeping in a shelter with dozens of other people, they don't get the sleep their bodies need."
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said officials have responded to the region's homeless crisis by increasing funding for a program that provides temporary housing for qualified candidates.
Called rapid rehousing, the initiative has received more than $165,000 this year, up from about $129,000 in 2014.
But Lawlor knows the need is greater than the program's ability to help.
"People are still falling through the cracks," he said. "We've got to keep working at this."
'We need some help'
Williams recently appeared on a local morning radio show to discuss the need for more shelters. The group also has turned to social media to inform people about the growing problem.
"We currently are short on space on Wednesday and Friday nights. Do you have a space that we can use?" a recent post on the PADS Facebook page said.
Because PADS offers to transport homeless people to their shelters, new sites can be anywhere in Lake County.
Anyone interested in hosting a shelter site can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although any site is welcome, Williams especially wants to establish a new center in Waukegan on Friday nights to better fill the gap created by St. Anastasia's departure.
"Many volunteers (from St. Anastasia's) still want to serve," he said. "We just need a physical space in which they can do that."
PADS aims to ensure everyone has a safe, warm place to sleep, Williams said. If the group doesn't add additional shelters soon, Williams is worried the agency will have to turn people away.
"We never want to be in a position to tell someone that there is no room at the inn, so to speak," Williams said. "We need some help to make sure that doesn't happen."