On the road with homeless in the suburbs

Chicago Tribune 2005

By Crystal Yednak

Dennis Glover spreads out his pile of Metra schedules and Pace bus maps on
a table in a homeless center in Wheaton.

Finally, he has a lead on a job.

But having lost his DuPage County home and car, Glover, 52, has to figure
out how he would get to work each day. He also has to find a way to get from
work to each night’s shelter, which moves to a different suburban
church–often to a different town–each night.

After scribbling in a green pocket-sized notebook and studying the maps for
an hour, he sets down his pen. “I think I can do it,” he says.

He’d have to leave shelters before 4 a.m. some days, trek through
industrial parks and along dark highways with no sidewalks. But he would do
anything to get his life back.

In Chicago’s suburbs, the infrastructure that supports some of the most
expensive housing in the nation also presents challenges to the homeless
trying to work their way back to a home.

And even if they have a job–a regional homelessness survey suggests almost
45 percent of the homeless in Chicago’s suburbs do–finding an affordable
apartment is proving to be more difficult.

In DuPage County, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that
a person needs to make $17.42 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at
fair-market rent. In Lake County, a person earning minimum wage would have
to work 107 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market
rent, the coalition estimates.

More people are turning to shelters. Mary Gajcak, homeless continuum
coordinator with the Will County Center for Community Concerns, said their
shelters are seeing all-time high numbers. McHenry County’s shelters serve a
few hundred, but homeless advocates say they saw a 60 percent increase last
year.

Advocates say they struggle for recognition of the problem because the
homeless blend into the suburban landscape.

“In Chicago, you can see it. You are confronted with it every day. Here,
you miss the person sleeping in the car,” said Jack Nichols, executive
director of McHenry County Public Action to Deliver Shelter, or PADS.

In DuPage County, an increasing number of people are trying to make
themselves invisible in a land of Lincoln Navigators and upscale coffee
shops–often for 12 hours a day, between the time they leave the PADS site
in the morning and travel to the next site.

Maps don’t reveal everything. Here, among mazes of office parks, streets
that aren’t pedestrian-friendly and difficult public transportation options,
Glover learns which restaurant owners will let him buy a 43-cent coffee and
spend a couple hours drinking it to avoid the cold. He learns the definition
of “public areas” and the hours of libraries and train stations. His feet
feel the mileage between shelter sites, because bus and train tickets must
be conserved.

Churches and synagogues in suburban PADS networks take turns hosting
shelters from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. most days. Last year, DuPage provided
services 339 nights; this year the goal is to offer shelter every night,
said Carol Simler, executive director of DuPage PADS. In some other
counties, the shelters are open only during the winter; in the summers, the
homeless camp.

Glover, a millwright by trade, has been at PADS steadily since about August
when “alcoholism got the best of me,” he said.

He now attends AA regularly and sees a counselor. “I’m like a new person
now; I’ve just got to get a new life here,” he said.

On a recent day, he starts early at the Lombard shelter site, trudging
along the cracked shoulder of Butterfield Road as cars whiz past him in the
dark. Some other homeless people have left already, headed to work.

It’s 21 degrees outside, 10 if you count the windchill, and the bundled men
and women at the bus stop definitely do as they wait half an hour for the
bus.

Most of the “PAD-ites,” as they call themselves, are headed to downtown
Wheaton, where a PADS day center is open to everyone until 1 p.m. Thursdays
only.

There they may use the laundry facility, phone and showers.

Glover drops a bright blue bag on the floor. Weighing about 40 pounds, it
holds his remaining belongings, except for his toolbox, which a relative
keeps for him. He pours a cup of coffee and checks for messages.

Around him, people are reading, attending employment sessions, watching the
coffeepot for the next pot to brew.

After mapping his route should he get that job, Glover starts thinking
about where he can get a bus pass to get to work.

Advocates say that navigating communities designed for cars is a big hurdle
for the homeless. In McHenry County, PADS pays $1,600 a week for a van to
transport the homeless from site to site and sometimes to job interviews,
Nichols said.

The people having to travel from shelter to shelter seem to divide into
three groups–those who are mentally ill and can’t access services they
need, those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, and those here
because of a layoff, divorce or unaffordable housing.

Suburban networks strained

The housing and economic pressures have revealed cracks in suburban
networks for the poor–cracks advocates and human services officials say
they are desperately trying to fill.

DuPage PADS staffers recently had to direct a woman with a newborn baby to
a Chicago program because they couldn’t find a place for her. A church in
Glen Ellyn started opening its doors Sunday afternoons because there was no
place in town for the homeless to warm themselves on Sundays.

Advocates say they’re seeing more families and pregnant women and have no
space in existing programs for them. As many children have been in the
DuPage shelters in the first six months of this fiscal year as all of last
year, Simler said.

“We need a safety net for the people who fall through our safety nets,”
said Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human
Services Reform.

Those falling through include people like Jennifer Marcus, a 25-year-old
mother who was 7 1/2 months pregnant last month.

She had been working at a Walgreens, but after her husband went to jail and
her car broke down, she didn’t have a way to get to work. The buses didn’t
run late enough for her late-night shift, and she had to quit.

With no subsidized housing available, she went to the homeless shelter with
2-year-old Rebecca. “It’s not easy with children. It’s hard to do things
like potty-train and teach them right from wrong,” she said.

Marcus said she gets roughly $300 a month in public aid as well as food
stamps, not enough to afford an apartment. She has been homeless since
October.

“I don’t want pity; I don’t want people looking at me and thinking I’m a
bad mother,” she said.

In the last few weeks, she has been staying with friends while awaiting her
baby’s birth but occasionally has been back at PADS with her daughter.

King said DuPage doesn’t have as many chronically homeless as more urban
areas, but “we do have a lot more episodically homeless people.”

`Second-degree homeless’

Advocates also talk about “second-degree homeless people,” or people who
are crowding into apartments with relatives or paying more than an
affordable rent.

DuPage County volunteers mobilize quickly, said Mary Ellen Durbin of the
People’s Resource Center, which serves low-income residents. But the needs
have grown so quickly, especially among those overburdened by rental or
mortgage payments, she said.

Philip, 45, who asked his last name not be used, has been homeless a month.
A printing pressman, he lost his job in October. He emptied his savings but
wasn’t able to make his mortgage payment. He’s working with the PADS staff
on his resume.

“Being here is hard. It’s depressing,” he said.

Housing advocates say they have a plan to create more places for the
homeless, but in the meantime, many “transitional” housing
programs–temporary homes for people looking for work–are full. Waiting
lists for subsidized housing are closed.

After a few hours at the DuPage day center, talk turns to how this group of
homeless will get to the next shelter site. Today, the group is lucky–the
doors to the Wheaton Metra station are open, and several head there for
warmth as they wait four hours for their train.

Rebecca sleeps in her stroller as her mother writes a letter nearby. Phil
keeps an eye out for the police to avoid trespassing tickets. Another
pregnant woman sleeps on a bench.

Glover takes the train to West Chicago and sits in a restaurant sipping
coffee for nearly an hour as he waits for the night’s shelter to open. He
walks up the dark road to the church. People who still have their cars, but
not their homes, start pulling in.

The line moves slowly, but finally Glover is inside. Finally, he doesn’t
need to pretend that he’s invisible.

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago TribuneĀ