At the Spring Meeting of the Community of Congregations, we met at the West Cook YMCA with the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition to begin to answer the question, “How can congregations help end homelessness in Oak Park?”

This question, which I’m excited to help address, has become a critical one for our community. Bob Hahn, a board member of Housing Forward and catalyst for this discussion, said, “We had been talking about the need for additional shelters as the PADS shelters were at capacity and we had to turn people away.” It quickly became apparent that homelessness is a pressing issue in Oak Park. So as faith communities and community builders, we began to ask ourselves, what can we do?

John Harris, principal of a5; Amy Rynell, senior director of research policy at the Heartland Alliance; and Lynda Scheuler, executive director of Housing Forward, met with about 40 of us representing a broad range of faith communities. We discussed causes of homelessness, the effects of homelessness on individuals and communities, and the needs of our institutions and nonprofits battling homelessness.

Lynda Scheuler defined what the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition meant by “ending homelessness,” saying the hope is that it should not be a chronic or epidemic problem in a community. Instead, when it happens it should be “rare, brief and one time.” The goal is that Oak Park has the means and structure to move people quickly from situations or issues that cause homelessness into stable housing.

With John, Amy and Lynda’s guidance, members of different faith communities sat together to brainstorm what education and awareness our community might need and where we might help to fill the needs of the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition. Many ideas were brought forth but what we discovered is that one of the most important things we could do was collaborate. Oak Park has long been a community committed to the dignity of all people. That’s one reason it’s a gift to be part of a faith community here. But if we are to end homelessness in Oak Park, the wider community needs to be committed to working toward that goal.

In fact, this is one of the founding principles of the Community of Congregations: We are better together. Ending homelessness is a huge task. No one organization or one congregation can do this alone. But it is possible, especially if we continue to come together to share what we see and know in our communities and to strategize. 

We can be a community that ends homelessness. Faith communities, community leaders and those experiencing homelessness can work together to be honest about what this goal would require from all of us. Discussion is where we start. We need not despair despite the tremendous need. Able organizations are working together and inviting us to partner with them. 

As the meeting came to a close, there was palpable excitement about getting to work, and perhaps more importantly, hope that this goal is possible. As one attender, Joash Mencias, stated, “It gives me hope to know the wider community is working to end homelessness.”

To get involved or learn more about this cause, check out the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition (Endhomelessnessoakpark.com).

Rev. Lindsey Long Joyce is the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Oak Park and Vice President of the board of Community of Congregations.

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