In 2015, West Suburban PADS changed its name to Housing Forward to better reflect the agency’s comprehensive approach to finding solutions to homelessness in the western suburbs. In 2020, the pandemic upended Housing Forward’s traditional shelter model, in which clients reported to churches or gyms for a meal and an overnight sleep on a portable pad.
Overnight, the communal living model had to be restructured.
The agency pivoted, and sought shelter in hotels for many clients. Today Erik Johnson, the nonprofit’s chief development officer, says clients have largely been moved out of hotels, and the board has decided to move away from the former PADS shelter model to focus more on more transitional housing opportunities.
Even before the pandemic, Housing Forward’s transitional housing programs aimed to get clients out of overnight shelters and into more stable housing that would enable them to more easily transition to permanent housing. Several interim housing programs are going strong today.
Bridge for Youth
Jontasia (whose last name is being withheld for privacy) is a high school student who credits Housing Forward’s Bridge for Youth program with giving her the home base and support she needed to finish high school.
“My mom put me out of her home when I was 17,” she said. “At 17, I really couldn’t do anything by myself. I was homeless and had to figure everything out.”
An internet search led her to Housing Forward, and within a few days of turning 18, she was able to find housing through Bridge for Youth.
Patricia Stokes, Housing Forward’s program director for Bridge for Youth, says the HUD-funded program works specifically with those between the ages of 18 and 24 in partnership with other agencies.
“We provide housing navigation services and work with other agencies to help the youth get connected to education and employment services,” Stokes said.
The period of homelessness was difficult for Jontasia has a high school student.
“I was moving around and being in different homes,” she said. “I started floundering because I didn’t have internet or a computer for remote school.”
Once Housing Forward placed her in an apartment with an internet connection and helped her find a computer, she says things improved. She expects to graduate from Oak Park and River Forest High School with a 3.0 grade-point average. She is also working part time and says Housing Forward support staff helped make this possible.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing without them,” Jontasia said. “Even with a full-time job, I couldn’t pay market rent, never mind pay for food. Just having the stability has been really good.”
Stokes says the Bridge for Youth program, which was launched in October 2020, serves a growing need in the community and serves a diverse population, from high school students to young parents.
“As we move along, we are figuring out how we can best serve these young people,” Stokes said. “They come to us with a variety of needs and concerns. At this time in their lives, they are navigating so many different things.”
Victory Path for military veterans
Stokes also directs Housing Forward’s transitional housing program for military veterans in partnership with Edward Hines Jr. V.A. Hospital. The program serves 15 households, which can either be a single veteran or a veteran family.
Housing Forward provides rent assistance for one year and works with the veterans on savings program and transitioning to independent housing. Case managers have daily contact with the veterans and weekly home visits. Stokes calls the program a “very active kind of process.”
“We are making sure they get the medication or mental health services they need to stabilize,” Stokes added.
One veteran currently enrolled in the program is Alfred Warren, a Vietnam War-era veteran who is disabled and found himself going through a rough time. He was in recovery and homeless when he was referred to Victory Path through Hines.
“I got connected right before Christmas,” Warren said. “It was a blessing.”
Warren struggles with depression but says that his Housing Forward counselors are helping him make progress. His one-bedroom apartment is providing a safe space to work on becoming stable.
“It’s working out very well,” he said.
In October 2020, Housing Forward began leasing 65 rooms at the Write Inn, a hotel at 211 N. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Park as part of its interim housing program. Janet Hotch, director of interim housing, says it was the first time Housing Forward had tried this model. What began as a response to the pandemic has become a new way of approaching homelessness.
Kits to help move from shelter to home
At one point during the pandemic, said Erik Johnson, Housing Forward’s chief development officer, the nonprofit had 119 clients living in hotel rooms.
As the agency worked to move those clients into homes, Housing Forward was overwhelmed with a need for the kits traditionally provided by volunteers to help clients move into a home.
Volunteer Coordinator Amanda Young stepped in to spearhead the effort to get over 100 kits, valued at over $1,300 each, ready in a short time period.
“As people transitioned from hotel shelter to home, they need everything — bathroom basics, kitchen supplies, cleaners, lights,” Young said. “Everything to set up a home.”
She credits a huge volunteer effort with getting the kits ready in record time.
“Gigi was our shopper and interior designer. Renee hauled things, Joe and Anne were good with culling used items,” Young said. “Seeing good people come together and works so well. I’m really proud of it.”
With the COVID relocation surge behind them, Housing Forward continues to need support for its efforts to build “House to Home” kits. Individual donations of funds or a community organization’s efforts to build a kit are welcome. More information is available by contacting Volunteer and Community Outreach Manager Enid Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Prior to the pandemic, we’d talked about the challenges that the church or PADS model presented for our clients, but the capacity to set up a different model was a big hurdle,” Hotch said.
When the pandemic forced their hand, Housing Forward initially set clients up in hotel rooms. By mid-September they were was moving clients into the interim housing.
Hotch says the interim housing model has proved a game changer for their clientele. “Their health is much improved,” she said. “People living in homelessness experience a lot of health issues when living on the street. From issues with their feet from walking all day, to wounds and issues arising from stress.”
She notes that the traditional PADS model provided food and nightly shelter, but it wasn’t ideal.
“People would be exhausted,” Hotch said. “They would sleep and eat at the church and then have to be out by 7 a.m. It was very hard for them to get case management or get to our support center so that we could help them be work-ready and prepare them to be housed.”
With interim housing, these issues are solved. People have a place to leave their belongings during the day, a home-base for meals and a place to meet with case workers.
“All these things are taken care of so they can start getting their feet back under them,” Hotch said.
On top of the Write Inn space, Housing Forward also operates medical respite interim housing and a family interim space in Oak Park’s Sojourner House.
Housing Forward’s Johnson says that the agency will focus on the interim housing model going forward rather than returning to PADS shelters in local churches post-pandemic.
New board members for Housing Forward
At the annual meeting of the Board of Directors on Thursday, May 20, Housing Forward appointed six new members to its Board of Directors and announced the five members who have completed their terms.
The new 2021-2024 Board members are:
- Barbara Best, CAP STRAT
- Paul Betlinski, Desmond & Ahern
- Tim Granholm, The Boeing Company
- Vena Nelson, Illinois Department of Public Health
- Bob Tucker, Chicago Community Loan Fund
- Steve McMahon Zeller, Dykema Gossett PLLC
Also joining the Board of Directors is Emanuel Johnson, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, who was elected to the board in January, 2021.
The members who have completed their Board terms are:
- Kathleen Clark, retired attorney
- Sarah Dolan, Quad City Bank & Trust
- Jim Heininger, Dixon | James Communications
- Aaron Lebovitz, Adaptation Capital, LLC
- Tim Wrzesinski, West Monroe Partners
- The following slate of officers was elected for the 2021-2022 Board term:
- Heidi Vance, President, Team Blonde
- Steven Glass, First Vice President, JenCare
- Camile Lindsay Kumi, Second Vice President, Illinois Department of Corrections
- Christopher Parker, Treasurer, Wintrust
- Marc Kieselstein, Secretary, Kirkland & Ellis, LLP (retired)
The members who will continue their terms on the Board of Directors are John Ciancanelli, Rebecca Daisley, Pamela Conley Euring, Henry Fulkerson, Bob Hahn, Patrick Herron, Peggy Johnson, LeTisa L. Jones, Delilah P. Strickland, John Tulley, MD and Destiny Woods.