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By Jean Lotus
Last week for three days, some 150 volunteers joined the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County to conduct an early morning "street count" of homeless people who were not staying in emergency shelters.
Around 3:45 a.m. Friday, the volunteers began to arrive in the basement offices of West Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) in the basement of the St. Eulalia Parish Center at 1851 S. 9th Ave. in Maywood.
Clutching their coffee and shaking off the wet cold outside, they consulted maps with homeless hotspots: police station waiting rooms, hospital emergency rooms, public vestibules, underpasses, 24-hour Laundromats and donut shops.
The volunteers were social workers, veterans program directors, college students, medical professionals. Also several former clients of PADS volunteered to "give back."
A small team of volunteers drove through Forest Park and Oak Park searching common homeless haunts. Among the volunteers were Don Donahue of Hines Veterans Hospital and Lori Wall, a social worker master's student at Dominican University, who is completing her clinical research at the VA. Also along were Jennifer Diaz, an employee of Thresholds mental health centers and PADS Program Director Teri Curran. They carried gift tote bags holding a blanket, donated by United Airlines, a McDonald's gift card, granola bars, a hat, gloves and scarf, and pamphlets describing local services for the homeless.
The registry was a combination of two programs: an official biannual "Point in Time" count on Jan. 23 to collect data for federal HUD programs, and the three-day registry as part of a national "100,000 Homes" campaign.
"In 2010 we found 74 people," said PADS Executive Director Lynda Schueler. The volunteers were seeking people who did not spend the night in emergency shelters to ask questions about health history and length of time without a permanent shelter.
"New this year, we're compiling a 'vulnerability index' to identify people who might have serious problems but have a lot of resistance to shelters and services," Schueler said. PADS also started a street outreach two months ago, to contact the same people.
"We are trying to identify people with serious problems — at least three 'morbidities.' These are people who will literally die on the streets," Schueler said. The survey asks about the individual's health history with kidney or liver disease, frostbite, heat stroke, cancer and diabetes.
By making contact, PADS can line up services and supported housing options for the most vulnerable homeless population. So far in two years, the 100,000 Homes campaign has found assisted shelter for 23,500 of the most vulnerable homeless across the country.
According to the 100,000 Homes website: "We can't end homelessness without knowing every person on our streets by name and learning what services, subsidies and supports will help them access and maintain permanent housing."
At the Forest Park police station, on-duty officers reported that no one had stopped in that night to rest on the leather waiting room couches. The team stopped at the Desplaines Blue Line stop, where Donahue said new CTA "one ride" rules, in effect Jan. 1, have limited the amount of time the homeless can ride the CTA trains. Rush Oak Park Hospital's waiting room was also empty although security personnel said they often allow people to rest there.
"We're only supposed to let them stay for an hour or so, but in this weather we let them stay longer — because we're good people, I guess," a guard said.
At 4:45 a.m., the temperature at 35 degrees, the team entered the Forest Park Dunkin' Donuts at 7200 Circle Ave.
A man rested at a corner table, his face shrouded by the hood of his heavy parka, his back to the restaurant, his feet resting on a chair. Respectfully, Donahue and Curran approached and asked if they could speak to him.
"Hi Teri," he responded, the two recognizing each other from Curran's 15 years of working with the homeless. "Jim" removed his hood and agreed to speak. Homeless for three years, he formerly lived in Stickney. Jim chose not to seek emergency shelter that night, he said, because he didn't think both he and his girlfriend could get into the shelters with a waiting list. She had gone to stay with a friend, he told Curran. He has a daughter locally, he told the team.
Curran asked him about health issues. Jim had cataract surgery through Vision of Hope at the Illinois Eye Institute. He also complained of a heart murmur and a lack of mobility in his hands. Donahue and Curran asked for Jim's daughter's cellphone number, which he gladly gave.
"We will keep this information to try to contact him so we can line up services for him," Curran said.
The team had less luck with a man they found in the Oak Park Metra station enclosed waiting room. Wrapped in blankets and trying to catch a last bit of sleep around 5:15, the man told volunteers he didn't want to speak tonight.
"Maybe tomorrow," he said, adding that volunteers had already given him a tote bag the previous night.
"One of the reasons we do this for three days," Curran noted.
Back at PADS offices, volunteers snacked on bagels, pastries and fruit as they compiled the evening's count.
PADS and the Alliance will present their findings at a press conference Feb. 8 at Loyola Medical Center.
Among the returning registry workers was Oak Parker Scott Jensen, a former client of PADS, now housed for seven years in an apartment. Jensen serves on the board of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County. He also serves on the Oak Park Disability Citizens Advisory Council.
Jensen said he had lived in West Cook YMCA SRO housing until he lost his disability benefits "through a glitch" and was homeless for 18 months. Jensen said he's bi-polar and PADS helped him receive therapy through Thrive Mental Health Services and Oak Park Township.
"I was also recovering and I was blessed and grateful to be able to stay sober on the streets," he said. "Taking drugs and alcohol is how a lot of people cope."
Jensen, who has no family nearby, said he understands the fear of being homeless.
"Ýou're all alone and you think that nobody cares and you don't trust anybody and don't think anyone can help you."
Jensen volunteers at shelters and helps give a client's perspective to the Alliance board. He is especially proud to work Christmas and Christmas Eve in shelters so volunteers can be home with their families.
"I love giving back. I have depression sometimes, and you can get defeatist and down. But [volunteering] makes me feel good and so grateful for what I have," Jensen said.