It was in Forest Park on Oct. 2, 1992 that West Suburban PADS first opened its doors to homeless people. The location was First United Church of Christ on Elgin Avenue. Volunteers had a dinner ready, mattresses were laid out on the floor, and though professionals such as police and social workers had tried to spread the word, not one homeless person came that first night.

In the 24 years since that opening disappointment, West Suburban PADS has matured into an organization called Housing Forward which has served close to 13,000 people and has an annual budget over $2 million. The problem, however, is that homelessness persists as a major social problem.

That awareness was in the minds of the 35 people, mainly from Oak Park but also from River Forest and Forest Park, who gathered at the West Cook YMCA, Monday evening, to participate in a program sponsored by the Community of Congregations titled, “Planning to End Homelessness,” presented by the newly formed Oak Park Homelessness Coalition.

The gathering began with a Power Point presentation on the state of homelessness in this area. A review of the risk factors for homelessness included lack of education and social support, mental health problems, minority status, bad health, substance abuse, trauma history, and being a veteran of the armed services.

Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward, brought the problem of homelessness down to a local level, noting that nearly 2,700 Oak Park residents are living in extreme poverty, that one in five renter households in that village spend over half their income on rent, and that last year in West Suburban communities like Forest Park and Oak Park, 2,182 people experienced homelessness, including 322 families with children.

She reported that the gaps and needs in responding to this heart-rending situation include things like the limited number of Housing Forward staff on the streets, limited resources for concrete things like a van and food, a lack of access to employment opportunities, not enough dollars and agencies functioning in “silos” — i.e. not sharing resources, not engaging cooperative planning and not sharing information.

Following the Power Point presentation, the crowd broke up into four discussion groups with the task of coming up with action priorities, which included:

 More cooperation between congregations

 Supportive housing for the mentally ill

 Special programing for women and children

 A centralized list of professionals to whom people at risk can be referred

 Leveraging existing village contracts to require the employment of some homeless people

 Leveraging unused space in buildings for programing

 Breaking down “silos,” and

 Designating some units in new developments for supportive housing.

The discussion focused on the village of Oak Park as a place to begin, partly because many of the participating organizations in the homeless coalition pushing the agenda are Oak Park agencies.

The idea, according to Schueler, is that the stone will be dropped into our area at a point called Oak Park but that the ripples of the movement to end homelessness will soon extend into Forest Park.

YMCA CEO Phil Jimenez acknowledged that the YMCA’s hosting of the event along with sponsoring a recent meet-and-match event to connect potential volunteers with service agencies is part of the Y’s strategy to become more involved in the life of the community. “Forest Park, Oak Park, River Forest and our other seven communities,” he explained, “invest so much in us every year. We want to give back and support the initiatives in them that align with our mission.”

Visit the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition website, www.endhomelessnessoakpark.com.

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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...