Local coalition unveils plan to combat homelessness

More than 200 students in Oak Park classified as 'homeless'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Theodore Bolden walked quietly to the front of the Veterans Room at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., during a Nov. 9 discussion on homelessness hosted by the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition. He was carefully manicured, dressed in a black three-piece suit and seemed more primed to deliver a TED talk than a raw testimony of survival.

"Two-and-a-half years ago, homelessness looked like me," said Bolden, a longtime Oak Park resident who grew up near Stevenson Park — the same area where, as a homeless veteran, he would sometimes bring his daughter as a kind of sanctuary when he wasn't sleeping on his grandmother's floor or in a shelter. 

For officials with the coalition, Bolden is the face of a type of homelessness that is more pervasive in the Oak Park area than many people may think. It's also not easily pigeonholed, its various permutations going beyond simple stereotypes of unkempt men hanging out in front of libraries and in shelters, or on sidewalks and streets.

According to a recent report authored by the coalition and released Nov. 9, more than 5 percent of Oak Park's population comprises residents who are living in extreme poverty, defined as those who make less than $9,000 a year.

That report includes a 10-point action plan whose ultimate goal is to end homelessness in the Oak Park — that means creating "a systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible or is otherwise a rare, brief, and one-time, non-recurring experience," according to the report. 

The 10 core goals listed in the report 21-page report include creating more affordable housing in Oak Park and numerous measures such as apartment unit donations, changing land use regulations and local ordinances, and engaging with landlords to help mitigate the burden of increasingly high rents in the village. 

Around 15 percent of Oak Parkers are food insecure, meaning they're unsure where their next meal might come from. In Oak Park District 97 and at Oak Park and River Forest High School, roughly 200 kids are classified as homeless, the report notes.

"At least once or twice a week, I get phone calls from social workers in our buildings saying, 'We have another student and a mother who got kicked out of the house and the family is now homeless,'" said Michael Padavic, D97's senior director of student services.

"Some of our students will be sleeping in shelters, in cars or on the available couches of relatives and friends. This has a clear impact on student performance," said Padavic, who is also on the board of the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township, one of the organizations that helped found, and sponsor, the Coalition three years ago. 

"A lot of people don't understand that about homelessness," said Lisa DeVivo, the health board's executive director. "It's not just someone you see on a street corner or on the el. It is people who are struggling to stay in their homes and apartments. They're couch-surfing in other people's homes, and they're literally one paycheck away from losing their homes."

As of October, the coalition has grown to include more than 30 member partners, including local nonprofits such as Housing Forward, both elementary and high school districts in Oak Park, numerous legislative districts and the village of Oak Park.

According to the report, median rent in Oak Park is $1,000 a month and over one in five households in the village are paying over half their income on rent — a situation that increases housing instability. 

The report also includes the goals of funding and supporting new outreach services, such as accessible walk-in service centers; building greater community awareness and support for the plan; and facilitating smoother collaboration among entities such as the library, schools and health providers in order to enhance homelessness services. 

"Those four goals [out of the 10] are what we'll be working on first," said John Harris, an Oak Park resident and the president and co-founder of a5, the Chicago-based brand and digital consulting agency that, along with the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, drafted and organized the report. 

Oak Park Village Clerk Theresa Powell said that since 2012 the village has invested nearly $10 million in various housing programs and three partner agencies — the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, the Oak Park Residence Corporation and the Oak Park Housing Authority. The money comes from the village's general revenue and federal block grants.

Powell said the village invests an additional $125,000 each year to fund resources like emergency shelters, rapid re-housing assistance and data analysis. 

Coalition members are hoping that the plan will both improve, and scale up, the services, already in existence, that helped Bolden get back on his feet. 

He is now enrolled at Triton College and Joliet Junior College, where he's pursuing a certificate in waste water management.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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