Report: More people using homeless shelters in DuPage

The number of people using homeless shelters in DuPage County is on the rise for the first time in years, according to a new report.

The DuPage County Continuum of Care, a group working to develop strategies to end homelessness, released a report indicating 1,302 people used an emergency shelter in DuPage between July 2016 and June 2017. That's an increase over the 1,210 people who used shelters the previous year.

It was the first time the number increased since 2014.

"That's not great news," said Mary Keating, chairwoman of the continuum's leadership committee.

Keating, also DuPage's director of community services, said there could be multiple reasons for the change, including the rising cost of housing and an increase in lower-wage jobs.

"It's difficult to say the exact reason that number changed in one way or another," she said.

Carol Simler, president and CEO of DuPage PADS, said a lack of funding for programs to prevent homelessness and rehouse those who have become homeless is a factor.

"We're not able to meet the need," she said, "so people are losing their homes."

One positive statistic is that the number of children at shelters dropped from 309 in 2016 to 284 last year. The number of families with children at shelters also declined.

"I think the number of children went down because families really do everything they possibly can to avoid going to an emergency shelter," Keating said.

Meanwhile, the 58 social services agencies and municipalities that belong to the continuum are working to divert families from shelters.

"Being homeless is a traumatic experience for anyone, particularly a child," Keating said. "The avoidance of homelessness for children is a huge priority for the continuum."

Over the past few years, Keating said, members have "made great strides" helping chronically homeless families get into permanent housing.

Despite those efforts, the Illinois State Board of Education estimates the number of homeless students attending DuPage schools continues to climb. Last year, it increased to 1,779 from 1,687 in 2016.

Simler said the estimate includes children who stay with relatives or friends because their family doesn't have a permanent home.

"That may be people that are couch surfing or using other facilities we're not aware of," Simler said.

Officials say the number of homeless students - and other data in the continuum's report - highlight the need for affordable housing.

"We have to do something in this county so we can have housing for everyone that they can afford," Simler said.

A household needs to earn an hourly wage of $23.69 to live in a two-bedroom apartment, according to the report. The minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour.

In addition to affordable housing and better-paying jobs, the group is calling for more job training programs, investment in homeless prevention services, access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, legal assistance and transportation.

"Being out in the suburbs, you really have to have a car in order to maintain employment," Keating said. "There's not a lot of places where you can live in the suburbs and successfully navigate to and from work without a car."

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