By Lacey Sikora
Oak Park will soon make housing his-tory with the opening of Sojourner House, the first dedicated bridge housing in suburban Cook County. Located on Austin Boulevard, Sojourner House contains five separate apartments as well as a detached coach house unit and will bridge the gap between homeless shelters and permanent housing for vulnerable men, women, and families facing homelessness.
A combined effort of Housing Forward, Oak Park Housing Authority, MacNeal Hospital and Oak Park Residence Corporation, the house is designed to keep families together with short-term stable housing until they can find permanent housing; to serve as an alternative to PADS shelters for people requiring accessible accommodation and to provide temporary residence for people recovering from medical treatment.
Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward, says that the need for such bridge housing is great and growing. She points out that 11 percent of PADS shelter clients are families and says that there has been an influx of families in shelters lately. Two of the six units at Sojourner House will be dedicated to families.
Another need that Housing Forward and Loyola Medicine's MacNeal Hospital have identified is for those needing medical care who are also facing homelessness. Schueler says of the Berwyn-based hospital, "They're highly motivated to stop the cycle. They see eighty to one hundred homeless patients a month."
Dr. Charles Bareis, chief medical officer of MacNeal Hospital, says that the hospital's interest stemmed from two coinciding points.
"We were looking at frequent utilizers of our emergency rooms," Bareis said. "Often, they have behavioral health issues, substance abuse disorders, homelessness or, very commonly, all three. At the same time, we became aware of work they're doing at [University of Illinois] in this area, and we started asking, how many of these patients do we have?"
The hospital's records revealed that over an 18-month period, the emergency room saw 1,400 of these frequent utilizers, a num-ber that Bareis says was galvanizing. "We were shocked at the number and by the realization that there was a group in our community who we may not be serving," he said.
Bareis noted that there are only 60 beds in all of Chicago for hospitals who are dis-charging homeless people and that doesn't begin to meet the need, so most patients return to the street after discharge.
"How do you recuperate on the street?" Bareis said. "Some medications like insulin need to be kept cold. Wounds need dressing. What if you need chemotherapy? Even if you can get into a shelter, where do you go during the day?"
Armed with the health care side of the equation, Loyola sought a partner who could handle the housing side of the equation turned to Housing Forward.
At the same time, Loyola Medicine was looking for a solution, the house now known as Sojourner House was no longer being used by the Heartland Alliance to house patients with HIV or AIDS.
David Pope, executive director of the Oak Park Residence Corporation, said that as treatment of these populations shifted from a congregate model to a scattered-site model, the Oak Park Housing Authority was left with a property and a question about how to put it to use.
He says that his relationship with the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition pointed out the need for interim housing for certain homeless populations.
"This is a place that people can call home for 24 hours a day," Pope said. "If you have kids or medical supplies, there's a real value in this."
Pope anticipates that the lengths of stay will vary anywhere from 60 to 120 days.
"The goal is for it to be a pipeline to more permanent housing," Pope said. "It fills the gap that has not been filled in Oak Park or western Cook County. The hope it is that it can be a model for others."
Pope and Schueler say that Sojourner House became a reality due to the combined contributions of many.
Individuals contributed to the effort: Housing Forward board member Bob Hahn donated appliances and local Eagle Scout Nathan Gallagher built the fence around the property.
Funding and larger projects such as lead abatement, electrical re-wiring, painting and continued medical services are being provided by community partners including Oak Park Township, the village of Oak Park, Loyola Medicine, Community Mental Health Board, Cook County Public Health, Access, Elevate Energy, ComEd Energy Pro-gram, McAdam Landscaping, Kapetaneas Painting Inc. and the DC14 Apprenticeship Program.
With much community support, Sojourn-er House has been made over to become a real home. Original elements such as the home's woodwork and stained-glass windows have been retained, but bathrooms and kitchens have been updated, along with mechanicals.
"The design element is important," Schueler said. "We want people, as they transition from homelessness, to feel a level of hominess. We want the building itself to be as stable as the supports we offer."
Schueler and Pope anticipate an August opening for the home, which should house between thirty and forty individual house-holds a year. For Schueler, it is a step in the right direction.
"We don't want to manage homelessness as is," Schueler said. "We need to think about how do we resolve the unique needs of the population? This is a unique solution."
As for the name of the house? She says that sojourner by definition means a temporary place.
"It's the right word at the right time," Schueler said.
Sojourner House will open with a Community Dedication on Thursday, Sept. 5 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at its location at 324 N. Austin Blvd. in Oak Park.
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