PADS Program Director Teri Curran (center) and Don Donahue (right) survey a homeless man at the Dunkin' Donuts for a HUD registry in January 2013. The registry was part of the HUD 100,000 Homes Campaign. (DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer)

PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) is a brand as familiar to residents of River Forest and Oak Park as the Nike swoosh or the face of Colonel Sanders. For most, it calls to mind the overnight emergency shelter that houses over 500 different people from September through May and is run by a total of 1,000 volunteers.

For the past 22 years, West Suburban PADS has been giving people living on the street a warm, safe place to sleep at night and a hot meal, but that’s only a small part of what PADS is doing in 2014. Lynda Schueler, the organization’s executive director, wants the public to know that PADS spends 6% of its $1,941,000 annual budget on getting the homeless into its shelters and 94% on getting them out — out of the emergency shelter and into permanent subsidized housing.

150 homes campaign

A recent “surge,” to borrow a military term, in the war against homelessness is what 20 providers in the Cook County suburbs call the 150 Homes Campaign.

Buying into the national 100,000 Homes Campaign, which set the goal of finding permanent housing for 100,000 chronic and medically vulnerable homeless Americans by July of 2014, West Suburban PADS collaborated with providers in Suburban Cook County to launch the local version of the strategy. The good news is that, to date, the local goal has been exceeded with 358 people, including 118 veterans, having been transitioned from homelessness to housing in suburban Cook County. Since July of 2010, 97,091 individuals (including 28,959 veterans) have been housed nationwide.

With Teri Curran, director of operations and client services, serving as co-chair, the alliance unified their assessments of the needs of people living on the street by adopting the same Vulnerable Index Survey, the results of which are filed on a master list accessible to all providers. Schueler said the unified approach has reduced duplication and increased the effective use of resources.

In this part of the western Cook County suburbs, the Street Outreach and Engagement Team comprising three PADS staff members — funded by the Chicago Community Trust, the Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township, the village of Oak Park and Cook County — has in the last two years engaged 207 people living on the street and assessed their needs, using the Vulnerability Index Survey. Fifty-four of them have been placed in permanent subsidized housing.

Opening doors

West Suburban PADS calls this effort their Open Door Housing Program. It’s based on the “housing first” principle that, somewhat counter-intuitively, seeks to address the issues of the client after they are housed rather than as a precondition to get into housing. The philosophy is that clients are better able to address the disabling issues which put them on the street if they have a permanent roof over their heads.

Open Door is a scattered-site program in which clients are provided with case management and linkages to support services, such as substance abuse programs and employment coaching. Participants in the program must document their disability through a physician or a psychiatrist. 

“Landlords like the program,” said Curran, “because we pay them, and we are responsible for collecting the clients’ portion of the rent.”

Why it is so important to combine case management with a rental subsidy is illustrated by the story of Pete, a homeless man who was living in Berwyn in a box right next to one of those old-fashioned newsstands. The PADS street outreach team found him, and he became one of the first four people to go into Open Door housing. 

“We moved him in,” said Schueler, “and ordered him new furniture, which came wrapped in plastic. Instead of unwrapping the couch, he put it up against the wall. We had taken him physically into housing, but mentally he had not been able to make that transition. Terri Curran went out with one of the case managers and worked to engage him and build mutual trust. 

“I can’t tell you how critically important it is to build trust with people,” Schueler added, “how important that level of being treated with dignity and respect as a human being is. They feel so shamed and have been spending so much of their mental energy on survival. For someone who hasn’t had that experience of being housed and feeling safe, it takes a lot of engagement.”

Pete, by the way, eventually unwrapped the couch and set it up in his living room.

Partnership with Hines

The Veterans Administration has received a lot of bad press lately, but Schueler said the 30 staff members of the homeless team at Hines “have done a pretty tremendous job of reducing homelessness among veterans.” Combining resources with the VA, PADS is able to identify more of the homeless population and then with HUD-VASH vouchers (U.S. Housing and Urban Development – Veterans Administration Subsidized Housing) the two agencies have partnered over the last several years to specifically address the needs of the homeless who are veterans.

Because there is an insufficient supply of subsidized housing available to meet the demand by homeless folks ready for the transition, it is important to move people out of subsidized housing into more independent living situations as soon as they no longer need supportive services. To facilitate this transition, the Housing Authority of Cook County has dedicated 75 “flow vouchers” to subsidize rents for this population.

Success stories

“I was moving a veteran into his own home at the end of June,” Curran recalled, “and gave him his House to Home Kit [see sidebar]. He said the past several years have made him discouraged about human beings, and this program made him realize that hope again existed. That’s what clients keep telling us over and over again, that they get hope again in the world.

“One of the clients, who had been living on the street for over two years,” Curran noted, “was housed in June in a community nearby. Our staff noticed an immediate change in how he presented because he was able to shower more consistently and take care of himself. Using the bicycle we got for him, he arrived here at the PADS office on the first of July to hand in his rent check that day because he was bound and determined to show how committed he was to changing his life.” 

Politically bipartisan

Open Door and PADS’ participation in the 150 Homes Campaign includes elements that both conservatives and liberals can applaud. It was initiated by non-governmental, nonprofit organizations using dollars from private trusts. Recipients of permanent subsidized housing are required to contribute to the rent as they are able. Republicans should like that accountability.

Democrats can point to the fact that government has been effective through HUD and the Housing Authority of Cook County, and everyone can rejoice at the news that the VA is doing something right. This particular private/public partnership seems to be working.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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