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Shnay: Panel has grim news on homeless problem in Southland

Updated: June 20, 2013 6:18AM



The joke goes something like this. A doctor runs up to a man who was struck by a passing auto.

“Are you comfortable?” he asks.

The man replies, “I make a living.”

It’s a tired old gag, but to the homeless in the Southland the word “comfortable” has no meaning, and a chance to “make a living” is often a distant dream.

We recently sat in on a panel of experts talking about the problem of homelessness in the Southland. You probably read about the discussion in Sarah Zylstra’s excellent story in the SouthtownStar.

On hand were Dawn Thrasher, of Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS); Ann Rodgers, of the Together We Cope food pantry; Sherry Sissac, of Respond Now; Pat, a counselor at South Suburban Family Shelter who, because she works with domestic violence victims, did not want her last name made public; and Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Cook County Housing Authority.

The numbers are grim. In the last six years, six new shelters for the homeless were opened by PADS. It is still not enough. Ten years ago, Together We Cope’s food pantry was helping 20 families a day, a number that has nearly quadrupled today.

The county housing authority owns 2,100 housing units, not nearly enough for the roughly 15,000 households helped by the agency. The waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers closed 12 years ago with about 10,000 people on it.

If that were not enough, the U.S. government’s mandatory “sequestration” cuts mean federal funds to the housing authority have been slashed by 30 percent.

The meeting, held at Homewood’s B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom synagogue, was more of a status report than a chronicle of accomplishment.

On one hand, the number of homeless in this country decreased by 1 percent from 2009 to 2011. But the number of homeless people moving in with relatives is up more than 9 percent during the same time span.

Those people “don’t even count,” Rodgers said. “If we added those numbers in, it would be staggering.”

The days when the homeless were limited to the derelicts of society are long gone. The Great Recession saw to that. More families are living on the edge, a couple of paychecks away from disaster.

It can quickly become a downward spiral of misery. You lose your job, then you lose your home and sometimes you lose hope. Your children struggle in school with “no haven to call their own,” Thrasher said.

The circle is vicious. More businesses in the Southland would mean more jobs, which would mean fewer people dependent on social service agencies that today have less to work with because donations are down.

Still, some see hope. Amid the gloom and defeat, there are still stories of success.

“There is at least one success story for every one of those challenges,” Thrasher said.

There was also another important message delivered — no matter who we are, none of us is immune to calamity. Some of us are one accident, one illness, one emotional zigzag, one bad decision or one stupid mistake away from catastrophe.

Take a hard look. It’s not that we are unlike the homeless, it’s just that we haven’t gotten there yet.

And if we do arrive, who will help us when we are not “comfortable” and have no living to make?



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