A conversation with Warp Corps' Rob Mutert on homelessness in McHenry County
Data gathered during McHenry County's annual Point-in-Time Count of the homeless population was released April 16. The count was held on a chilly evening in February by volunteers from the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homeless (CoC), a coalition of about 40 agencies that aid people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Here is what they found:
• 92 individuals, including 13 children under age 18, were in various emergency and transitional housing programs.
• 11 individuals were living unsheltered on the streets.
But many advocates warn that data collected in 2022 may not be comparable to pre-pandemic data. Some question the accuracy of the annual count because people living with no permanent home can be close to invisible, going undetected during the count.
So, we chatted with social entrepreneur Robert Mutert to better understand homelessness. Mutert is a CoC member and executive director of Warp Corps, an L3C or Low-Profit Limited Liability Company. Put simply, an L3C is a business with a social mission.
In Warp Corps' case, its mission is ever evolving. Currently, guiding unhoused people toward shelter tops the Warp Corps agenda.
Below are points from our discussion with Mutert, held at his L3C on Woodstock Square. The conversation, which stretched over three days in short sessions, has been condensed and edited for clarity.
About the L3C's name:
Warp was the name of a skate park that I had for about 10 years, first in Woodstock and then in Lake in the Hills. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 knocked it out. Warp -- We Are Real People. I am a Marine Corps veteran. To me, a corps is a group of people with similar beliefs. So, Warp Corps.
In 2017, I became aware of the opioid epidemic and suicide problem in our community. There were 79 overdoses and 30 suicides that year. I knew several people who had died from either an overdose or suicide. It put me into what-can-I do mode -- how can I affect a change. So, I started Warp Corps in my basement as a prevention-based program for kids. I wanted to stop the nightmare through prevention.
Warp Corps was organized as an official business in 2018. We started by doing monthly engagement/prevention programs in the community -- taking tables to various events and passing out information. In 2019, we opened the storefront on Woodstock Square -- selling coffee and skateboarding gear and offering free programs to engage kids in art, music and adventure sports to prevent them from drug use. But within the first year of opening our doors, we were pulled by the power of the universe to raise awareness about homelessness. We still offer prevention programs, but we keep them separate from our efforts to help the homeless.
The Pull Explained:
While working with kids BC -- that's before corruption -- we joined McHenry County's Substance Abuse Coalition and the CoC. We quickly realized that there's a need to work with people already using drugs. In many cases, mental health leads to substance abuse, substance abuse to homelessness. People turn to drugs to cope with pain. Then they burn every bridge and wind up on the street. Don't get me wrong, this isn't everyone's story. No two people are the same.
More on the pull:
Another eye-opening experience was in 2018 when I became aware of a tent city in a wooded area in Woodstock. I saw about 20 people living in squalor, using drugs openly. But when our street outreach van appeared, they sought assistance and asked for help in the arena of harm reduction.
Right now, McHenry County residents who have emergency housing needs can find shelter at PADS in McHenry. It's run by Pioneer Center for Human Services. Coordinated entry is available throughout the county. That means you can go to any agency in the McHenry County CoC and be directed on how to get emergency shelter. Faith-based organizations used to be a stopgap for people in need. That's mostly gone now because of COVID. Churches couldn't even hold services during the pandemic, so they couldn't open their doors to the homeless. But there are churches in Crystal Lake involved in the CoC and the Empower Shower program, a twice-monthly event that provides showers and a wide range of services to the unhoused community.
Earlier this year, Warp received a $75,000 Community Development Block Grant from McHenry County to continue a street outreach program now in its third year. We go out every working day looking for people who are living unsheltered. We know of certain spots that people experiencing homelessness tend to gather. For instance, there's a laundromat with a very cool owner. He lets people get out of the cold -- if they behave. We look pretty much anywhere we know homeless people might be. We go out on what I call 'bushwhacking' -- look in wooded areas to find and then support people living in tents and lean-tos with love and compassion.
More on outreach:
What would you see if you went along for a ride on our street outreach van? That we can spend five hours driving around and see nothing. But recently, I went to the post office. I saw a guy obviously homeless. A guy that I had never seen before. I explained that we could help if he needed help. The offering of services was met with heavy resistance and no interest. It was just "nope." Others, in similar situations, are very receptive.
When it works:
Through street outreach, we helped a single mother with two teenage kids that went from living in their van and ultimately to subsidized housing. How the family wound up in the van, I don't know. We don't ask questions. We just help them. We had young folks that we have helped navigate off the streets and into sober living or emergency shelter. We have people with mental health and substance use issues that we have gotten into a variety of more stable living situations. We are currently doing outreach work with about a dozen unhoused individuals to provide goods and services as needed. The help they need ranges from housing solutions to camping supplies as well as connections to other agencies and simple emotional support.
When it doesn't work:
The cops called me and said there's a dude hanging out at the train station who might be homeless. I went out and found him. He was an Afghan refugee. He had walked from Rockford to Woodstock. There was a language barrier. He had nothing. No food. No water. No money. No ID. It was in November. He had no warm clothes. He had been sleeping in ditches. And there was absolutely nothing I could do for him. Because to get help in McHenry County you must be a resident of McHenry County. The best I could was tell him was to get on a train. Go to a shelter in Chicago because Chicago doesn't have a residency rule. I felt as if I was throwing him into the lion's den. It was disheartening that I was putting him on the street in the big city.
On the unhoused:
There's an ebb and flow to people living unsheltered in McHenry County. There's more in the summer. More homeless people from Chicago come out here. Maybe it's a break from the environment they are living in Chicago.
Involving the community:
The Warp Corps team travels to hospitals, churches and other known gathering places for the homeless population to spread the word of the services and support available through the various organizations in the county. That's part of the agenda that we are really kicking hard thanks to the grant from the county. We're going to every community in the county.
If it takes a village, we are the village. If not us who? If not now when?
• People in need of emergency shelter can call (815) 344-1230.
• Warp Corps' street-outreach program offers people experiencing homelessness free services and supplies, including connection to emergency shelter, limited transportation, rapid COVID-tests, camping and cold-weather gear and hygiene products. Call Andrew Turner, Warp Corps' outreach superviso, at (260) 409-9811; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• At their shop/community center, Warp Corps offers free prevention-based programs; art workshops; job-search help; and training to use Narcan, a prescription medicine used for the emergency treatment of an opioid overdose. Warp Corps raises funds through the sale of skateboards, custom-made apparel, and Max Happy Blend Coffee, which is locally roasted. A recording/livestream/podcast studio is available for a fee. Learn more at warpcorps.org; call (815) 985-6256; vor stop by 114 Benton St., Woodstock.
• Empower Shower is held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every first and third Friday of the month at Willow Crystal Lake, 100 S. Main St., Crystal Lake. Contact Julie Davis at email@example.com to learn more.