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By Tom Holmes
In 2008 Camellia (surname withheld at her request) hit a very bumpy stretch in her life. The 22-year-old was not only engaged in a nasty custody battle for her 2-year-old son, but she also faced the prospect of becoming homeless, which if it were to happen, surely would mean losing her son as well as her home.
"I kept my faith in God," she recalled, "and prayed. I believe that's what led me to PADS. Thanks to PADS I was able to find housing and be able to do what I had to do to keep my son."
"Today," she said, "I am doing very, very good. I am very blessed. I just made 25. My son just made 5. I graduated from college last May, have a job at Catholic Charities, and I have a permanent home in Oak Park. PADS provided the tools I needed to graduate from college and take care of my son."
Camellia's is one of many success stories Lynda Schueler, executive director of West Suburban PADS, tells to illustrate how her organization has grown (and grown up) since it was born almost 20 years ago. One sign of this maturity is that PADS not only moved Camellia into permanent housing and helped her get on a smoother, straighter road to success, but the agency accomplished the feat without Camellia and her son ever spending one night in a PADS emergency shelter.
In fact, PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) has matured to the point where Schueler and board President Laura Kliewer declared in their most recent annual report, "We have always believed that homelessness can be solved. In 2010, our impact ... proved the point."
The evolution of West Suburban PADS into an agency that has the resources — and connections with other agencies — needed to assist someone like Camellia can be compared to the human life cycle.
The year the Soviet Union ended, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was caught on videotape, the Oak Park village board adopted a resolution that called the Persian Gulf War "unjustified," Rosary College announced it was testing the waters for a new name, and a fire destroyed Granny's Deli — 1991 — Lynda Schueler was in her senior year at Illinois State University.
That was also the year Rev. Greg Dell of Euclid Avenue Methodist Church, along with other clergy and lay people, realized that homelessness was a pressing issue — not just for the nation, but Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park in particular. The social service network in the three villages was activated, a few people met for the first time on Dec. 9, and word spread to a core group of about 20, who met in church basements and social halls to create a strategy that would address the issue local clergy had been dealing with on a regular basis.
Leaders from existing shelters, most of which were located in Chicago, were consulted, and a response to homelessness in this area began to take shape on paper. When the idea of starting a shelter in "our area" was made public, however, the ad hoc group of planners experienced significant pushback.
Denial was the first roadblock.
"Homelessness, so the stereotype went, was a 'Chicago problem,'" recalled Rev. Dean Lueking, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest at the time. According to a Sun-Times article covering the vote at Grace on whether or not to become an overnight site for the new shelter, "They say there are no homeless people in River Forest, despite a local service agency's report that more than 250 households from the area requested shelter in 1991."(2/14/93)
Dell said police in all three villages proved to be allies, testifying to the presence of the homeless in all three villages.
Part of the pushback took the form of fear. How would the homeless impact the health and safety of the neighborhood? The Sun-Times article quoted some critics as saying that a shelter site in River Forest would be a "magnet for undesirables and communicable diseases."
Lueking described the stereotype stuck in some people's minds: "[The homeless] were chronically dysfunctional men who were mentally ill or addicted drugs or alcohol, or on the lam from jail. And the racial innuendos in those comments were not altogether hidden."
Dell said that NIMBY ("not in my backyard") was also a factor in the resistance to the creation of a shelter program. As Lueking puts it: "No one was crass enough to declare, in the name of Jesus who was born homeless in Bethlehem's cattle stall, that we had no business welcoming homeless people in our building. The rub was doing it in River Forest."
Lueking, Rabbi Victor Mirelmann, Dell and Juanona Brewster — co-directors of the fledgling organization — and others suffered what Lueking referred to as brickbats from some congregational members, village residents, the press and village governments. The Sun-Times reported, "It sounds incongruous, given the stately homes and handsome incomes of many of its residents, but River Forest has a homeless problem that has led to an ugly schism in one of our most venerable houses of worship."
The controversy made the news, but most of the work involved attending to the myriad of details, like ordering mattresses and attending to the logistics of transporting the equipment from site to site, enlisting seven houses of worship to serve as overnight sites once a week, recruiting volunteers to staff the sites and formulating policies and procedures.
Although the vast majority of the founding mothers and fathers of PADS were people of faith, a decision was made early on to have a moment of silence instead of a prayer before each meal served at the shelter.
"We wanted to meet people where they were," Dell explained, "and to be sure that we were not making moral judgments or insisting on conformity with any particular faith community or style."
The decision was also made to have the volunteers serve the guests their meals instead of the guests serving themselves buffet style. It was an attempt to treat those using the shelter with dignity. The term "guests" was adopted for the people being served, rather than "clients."
After passing village inspections and tying up as many organizational loose ends as possible, Tri-Village PADS, as it was then called, opened the doors of an overnight emergency shelter for the first time on Oct. 2, 1992 at First United Church of Christ in Forest Park. A meal had been cooked, the volunteer staff was at their posts, the doors opened ... and not one person came that first night.
In the days that followed, however, word spread through the homeless community network, the all-volunteer leadership stuck with their plan, and in a learn-as-you-go manner, Tri-Village PADS survived and began to crawl.
Lueking's church eventually voted in favor of becoming a site in addition to five other Christian congregations and the Oak Park Temple. A handful of families left Grace because of the decision, he said, but "sheltering guests for a year at Grace went without a hitch. Not a single incident occurred that required the police or any other intervention."
"Once folks began to experience the PADS program," said Dell, "it became easier to convince others who were skeptical that it would not be the end of the world to have homeless people living next door."
From its inception, PADS has intentionally sought to grow its services beyond providing emergency shelter, the service for which they are known best, to include programs that enable clients to actually move into permanent housing.
"We're not about managing homelessness," Schueler declared. "We're about solving homelessness. Our vision is to make sure that there is an end goal for everybody that we serve — housing stability."
Schueler said that over the last 20 years, the organization gradually recognized that homelessness is a complex problem, requiring a multifaceted approach. Emergency shelter for those without a home was the first program provided by PADS in 1992, but they have added four other components to create a holistic, comprehensive approach:
1. Employment Readiness
2. Supportive Housing
3. Homeless Prevention
4. Supportive Services
The first step in the growing up process was becoming incorporated in August of 1992 and hiring its first employee, Della Howell, as director in January 1993. The next step was opening a pilot support center in January of 1995, located at 4 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park.
If people are going to move out of homelessness, Schueler explained, they need support services like showers, laundry, lockers, a mailing address, computers for finding job openings, case managers, nurses, substance abuse counselors — support to help people become self-sufficient.
The Transitional Housing Program was launched in May 1996 and expanded in 1998. PADS started transitional housing for single adults and veterans in June 2004 and added a Permanent Supportive Housing Program in 2006.
"The folks we serve all come from poverty," said Schueler. "Sometimes it's multi-generational poverty. We have a number of women in transitional housing now who were never taught skills like financial literacy. We don't just provide people with housing. A hugely important component of our Transitional Housing Program is providing skills they need when they graduate from the program to sustain themselves in housing and to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty."
Schueler said the goal of the program is not just to teach skills but to change the mindset of hopelessness. As one PADS beneficiary put it, "Just try one more time." That's what my case manger would tell me. You have to hope. If you don't have hope, you can't ever make it through the system. I had a college diploma but getting approved for my Social Security benefits was absolutely the most overwhelming and discouraging thing I have ever experienced. ... If it weren't for my case manager, I would have given up." [from the PADS 2012 Calendar]
In July of 2000, the board of directors changed the agency's name from Tri-Village PADS to West Suburban PADS because the organization's service area was growing. At present, PADS has shelter sites in Oak Park, Berwyn, Forest Park, Elmwood Park and Franklin Park. The agency maintains supportive housing units in 10 of the western suburbs, as far south as Lyons and as far north as Franklin Park in addition to Oak Park and Forest Park.
On New Year's Day of 2001, PADS launched its Homeless Prevention Program, the program that assisted Camellia.
"Since 2001," boasts the PADS 20th anniversary calendar, "we have prevented 1,011 men, women and children from becoming homeless in near-west Cook County."
Camellia testifies to the effectiveness of the Homeless Prevention Program.
"PADS gave me and my son a home, budgeting classes, case workers like Susie and Felicia who were always supportive if I needed someone to talk to, if I needed Christmas toys for my son. They provided a good foundation for me to provide adequate housing for me and my son."
Call it a pre-emptive strike on homelessness, the prevention program provides financial aid to prevent eviction, foreclosure or utility shut-off for people on the brink of losing their permanent housing.
The final step toward the agency's coming of age was a strategy for assisting clients to become prepared for entry into the job market and then to find work. The first class in the Career Passport Program graduated in December of 2009. Schueler says this "employment readiness" program takes a therapeutic approach to preparing people for work. Clients receive not only help in composing resumes and networking, but they also go through the program in small peer groups that attempt to "get at some of the core issues preventing people from entering the work force."
"It's taken 20 years," said Schueler, "but we really feel we've filled in all of the service and housing gaps. We've developed a fully comprehensive system of programming that really addresses the full continuum of needs of this population."
Statistics show how far West Suburban PADS has grown from providing only emergency shelter run completely by volunteers to a more comprehensive approach, including emergency shelter, prevention, support, employment and transitional housing.
Based on the numbers (see sidebar), together with statistics from her agency's large database, Schueler says the programs PADS has in place have reduced homelessness in this area by 36 percent.
PADS' professional staff, which has grown to 30, doesn't attempt to provide all of the services the homeless need.
"We are partnering with agencies that have expertise in areas we don't want to be experts in," said Schueler. "We're really the conduit to get people connected with all those services already in place in our area."
During the last 20 years, partnerships have formed with Loyola University Medical Center, which provides medical school residents to staff an onsite clinic once a week. AmeriCorps has provided 10 staff members during the last few years. West Suburban YMCA set aside 10 of their SRO rooms beginning in January for single men involved in the Career Passport Program. The Oak Park Residence Corp. also helps with housing. Thrive Counseling Center provides mental health services. Seventeen agencies in all have partnered with PADS.
This summer the agency added to its logo the following tagline, which underscores their conviction that the issue of homelessness can be solved: "Opening doors, building futures, ending homelessness."
"PADS is a really awesome organization," Camellia says, "and I can't put into words all the things they did for me. They went above and beyond what an organization has to do."
The numbers as well as anecdotal stories like Camellia's support Schueler's contention that "we can end homelessness. It's not impossible, and we've proved it."
This article has been updated to correct the number of people served at the 11 shelter sites.
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