Volunteer Samuel Muniz places bedding in the women’s section of a PADS shelter at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park, which served as the Friday site until 2020. | File

Housing Forward is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Since the nonprofit’s founding in 1992 the agency known then as PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) has served 17,000 homeless people and has grown from an all-volunteer organization to one with a staff of over 70 and a budget of $13 million.

When the word got out in 1991 that members of the Community of Congregations, together with an informal group of clergy in Forest Park, were planning to open a homeless shelter, many residents in the tri-village area pushed back.

First, they said, we don’t have any homeless people in town. And second, they argued that a shelter would attract homeless people from the city who would bring crime and disease along with them.

Rev. Dean Leuking was the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest at the time. “It was on my mind,” he recalled, “that people were homeless in River Forest and the reason was because people would knock on the church door telling me that they were homeless and hungry.”

When Leuking proposed that Grace become a site for the new outreach, the village of River Forest brought up several objections. Richard Mertens a lawyer and member of Grace tells what happened next.

“We ended up before the village board in River Forest over the span of probably months. There was certainly some reluctance by the board to permit Grace to host the PADS folks overnight. They were looking at it from a zoning perspective saying that there was no permission in the zoning ordinance for such a use of property.

“We took the position that, as a church, this was part of our calling, i.e. to minister to folks in need. We were a church established at that location and we were just carrying out what churches do. What finally happened after several months of trying to sort through this, the village took the position that they could regulate the way in which we operated. So the village enacted an ordinance with many requirements like needing so many showers available, having a room with specific dimensions, and having certain sanitation facilities available.”

Long story short, Grace complied with the stipulations and hosted the shelter on a rotating basis for two years.

Rev. Greg Dell the pastor of Euclid Methodist Church and Juanona Brewster were elected as co-chairs, and several months of organizational meetings resulted in the creation of Tri-Village PADS.

The new organization opened the doors of its first site in October of 1992 at First United Church of Christ in Forest Park. Mattresses were laid out on the floor, a meal was prepared and volunteers were in place to take care of the expected crowd. But, to their disappointment, no one showed up.

Volunteer Betty Dvorak, center, served bowls of chili to homeless men and women at the PADS shelter in St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park, pre-pandemic. | File

Housing Forward is not a religious organization per se, but without local churches it would not have survived and grown as an institution — in the scope of its service area, in the number of clients served, and in maturity as an organization.

PADS adopted a model that lasted for 28 years. It included an emergency shelter program that rotated every night. Until 2020 when COVID struck, the gym at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park served as the Friday site for many years.

The routine at each site was the same. The volunteer site captain and the set-up team would arrive around 6 p.m. to set up tables and arrange the mattresses for about 40 people on the floor with a separate section for women and children. Around 6:30, the dinner team would carry in food that was already prepared and/or start cooking.

Clients entered the facility at 7:30 and picked out a mattress for the night. That accomplished, the dinner team along with volunteers from the set-up team would serve the 40-50 people sitting around tables set up along with the mattresses.

Will Kasander was a member of the team from First United in Oak Park. He has seen guests, as they used to be called instead of clients, thank God for another day when they wake up.

“It surprises me because I would think waking up like that would be a difficult and frightening thing,” Kasander said in an interview with Wednesday Journal several years ago. “But many of the guests wake up with a positive attitude and a cheerful disposition.”

“It was enormously gratifying,” said Nancy Carleton Pennington, “to be able to connect them with services beyond overnights. I was working in child welfare at the time, and I was sometimes able to help parents locate children they had lost because their homelessness prevented them from being able to care for their kids.”

In 1999 the nonprofit changed its name to West Suburban PADS, because its service area was expanding from the three original villages to what would eventually become 26 communities in the western suburbs.

During its first 15 years PADS evolved into an agency with a $1.3 million budget and a professional staff of 15. PADS expanded the services it offered from emergency shelter to include a day-time support center, case management for those suffering from substance abuse, mental health and medical problems, and services to help prevent homelessness.

That expansion necessitated enlarging the office space. Mary Richie was the secretary of the agency’s board of directors at the time of the transition. “At first,” she recalled, “our offices were in the basement of a church in Maywood, but unfortunately it flooded when it rained.”

The organization moved to what used to be the convent at St. Bernardine Catholic Church in Forest Park and then to its present location at 1851 S. Ninth Ave. in Maywood.

Perhaps the most significant event during this chapter was the hiring of Lynda Schueler in 2001 who has served as the agency’s executive director ever since.

Heidi Vance, co-owner of Team Blonde on Madison St. and currently Housing Forward’s president, used the words “nimble” and “creative” to describe her board and Schueler.

An example is a program they ran until 2017 with the West Cook YMCA called Interim Housing. Pursuing the goal of prevention, the program provided a SRO (single room occupancy) room for single men at a budget price. Phil Jimenez, the director of the Y, described the program as dealing with the issue “upstream” from actual homelessness.

On Dec. 31, 2015, West Suburban PADS announced it was entering the new year with a new name, Housing Forward. Its mission had evolved to “transition people from housing crisis to housing stability.” The name was changed “to better convey the comprehensive nature of its solution to homelessness.”

In a 2015 Wednesday Journal article, Tony Mitchell, a member of the Housing Forward Board of Directors and Unity Temple, said, “The most valuable and meaningful part of my week is the time I spend on Friday nights serving clients at one of Housing Forward’s overnight shelters. Serving a meal, playing cards, or sharing a conversation, I get a unique opportunity to be with people who may have fewer material resources than many of us but hold a greater appreciation for these gifts than most all of us. I’m humbled by their dignity and faith in a world that often offers them little of either.”

Amy Morton, a member of Ascension Catholic Church and the PADS site captain on the second Friday of the month, said in a 2015 interview at the site, “I think that for me volunteering here makes homelessness feel real and very possible. There are a lot of people here who had everything going their way, and they became homeless. For me it’s there but for the grace of God go I. It makes me grateful for my safety net, grateful for my family and all the connections I have.”

“I know numerous families with alcohol, mental health, and employment challenges,” explained Maureen Crotty, another member of Ascension and a long time PADS volunteer. “PADS enables me to be ‘part of a solution’ by providing the essentials of food and shelter. I am deeply grateful that on the second Friday of the month I can be a part of a supportive, caring network.”

Several young people came with Morton and their parents that night to volunteer at the emergency shelter. Audrey Benzkofer, then 8 years old and a member of Ascension Catholic Church, and her brother, Sam, then 12, both admitted to being nervous the first time they volunteered, but Audrey added, “The rest was pretty fun.” Sam said, “It made me think that however tired I was, these people were 10 times more tired and they had a lot worse week than I had, even if I had a terrible week.”

The rotating emergency shelter site model proved sustainable for 28 years, until COVID-19 hit the area with vengeance, forcing the agency to pivot on a dime. On March 12, 2020 it shifted almost overnight from a congregate shelter model to housing clients in separate rooms in four different hotels in the area.

Vance recalled, “I’m so proud of how the board was nimble in supporting Lynda in making the literally life-and-death quick changes caused by COVID.”

The move to hotels was a life-saver in the short run but not sustainable organizationally or financially, even with help from FEMA.

“The village of Oak Park,” Vance said, “approached Lynda about making the Write Inn the single location where all clients would be housed, a move which would be more sustainable in the long term, make it much easier for case workers to connect with clients, allow clients to get into permanent housing more quickly and improve their overall health.”

She said moving into the Write Inn opened up the possibility of creating 15 units (that can house up to 19 people) dedicated to Housing Forward’s Medical Respite Program which provides a place for homeless people who are going in for a procedure, such as a colonoscopy, and shelter for those with nowhere to go after surgery.

Lynda Schueler reported that at present 70% of the clients in the Interim Housing Program clients in the first year of that program are no longer homeless but living in permanent housing.

Vance also acknowledged that some homeless clients don’t fit neatly into the Housing Forward model which views clients as having a run of bad luck, needing a safe place to get back on their feet, and fairly quickly getting back to a job and their own home.

“For that very reason,” she explained, “we are building in Broadview a facility which for now we refer to as Permanent Supportive Housing Broadview (PSHB) for people who essentially cannot live unattended, can’t find the means to fund themselves and/or need more onsite case management.”

Housing Forward will celebrate this milestone at their Have-a-Heart Gala 2022 at the JW Marriott in Chicago on May 21.

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