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Experts: Homelessness a growing problem in the Southland

Ann Rodgers Together We Cope (left) Richard Monocchio Cook County Housing Authority during panel discussihomelessness south suburbs Temple B'nai YehudBeth

Ann Rodgers, of Together We Cope, (left) and Richard Monocchio, of the Cook County Housing Authority, during a panel discussion on homelessness in the south suburbs at Temple B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood Sunday, May 5, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 7, 2013 6:19AM



Unemployment is down a bit in the Chicago area. Productivity is up.

But as the region begins to claw its way back out of the recession, one number is stubbornly heading the wrong way: homelessness.

“In the last five years, we have added six shelters,” said Dawn Thrasher, community resource coordinator at South Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS). “Even though we’ve done that, we still don’t have enough capacity.”

Thrasher joined a panel of experts from the Cook County Housing Authority, Respond Now, Together We Cope and South Suburban Family Shelter on Sunday at the B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom synagogue in Homewood.

“Ten years ago, our food pantry was helping about 20 families a day,” Together We Cope hub coordinator Ann Rodgers said. “Now we’re helping 70 to 80 families a day.”

The economy and closing of mental health facilities have an enormous impact, she said.

Nationally, the homeless numbers are falling a bit — down by about 1 percent from 2009 to 2011 according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness — but the homeless are notoriously difficult to count, Respond Now board member Sherry Sissac said.

For example, the number of homeless people moving in with family members was up 9.4 percent from 2010 to 2011, Sissac said.

“Based on the (U.S. Departmetn of Housing and Urban Development) definition of homeless people, those who have lost their home and moved in with family aren’t considered homeless,” Rodgers said. “They don’t even count. If we added those numbers in, it would be staggering.”

The face of the homeless is changing, Sissac said.

“Most times, if you were to ask someone (to describe the homeless), they may talk about that single man, perhaps he is abusing alcohol and on the street. That’s just one aspect of one profile of one demographic under this umbrella of homelessness,” she said.

Since the beginning of the recession, agencies are seeing an increase of women and children, some just recently unemployed, she said.

“Most families are one to three paychecks away from becoming homeless,” Thrasher said. “They either have no room in their budget for savings or never learned how to pay themselves first. If they lose their job or their car breaks down and they can’t get to their job to make rent money, it can all tumble down like a house of cards very, very quickly.”

The effect on children can be severe, she said.

“The children of our clients are struggling in school, because they don’t have as table place to go at the end of the day,” Thrasher said. “They have no safe place they can call their own. They can’t leave that behind when they walk in the school door. It impacts their ability to learn, which, another generation later, creates another generation of people who are struggling.”

The solution to homelessness is complex, but improving several factors would help, the experts said.

“So much of the homelessness now is economically driven,” Thrasher said. “We have to find ways to get businesses to come back to the south suburbs.”

Without those businesses, jobs aren’t available. Without jobs, people either move away from the area or tumble into homelessness. Giving goes down at local faith communities, which in turn have less to give to social services. And with fewer faith communities providing space and volunteers, PADS — which provides the only homeless shelters in the Southland — has less to work with, Thrasher said.

“This year especially was emotionally difficult because it was the first year we had to turn people away because we just didn’t have enough capacity,” she said.

Government funding for housing assistance, slimmed down through budget cuts, also is crucial, Cook County Housing Authority executive director Richard Monocchio said.

“We assist about 15,000 households,” he said. “We own about 2,100 units, a lot of those in the south suburbs: Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Harvey, Robbins. The frustration is that there isn’t enough. I’ve seen the resources really dry up, and it’s scary, because not only do we have families who are now, because of economic crisis, coming into our system or the shelter system, but we also have the folks who have been on the waiting list forever.”

The waiting list for Housing Choice Section 8 vouchers closed in 2001 with 10,000 people on it, he said.

Even when vouchers turn over, as they do 30 to 40 times each month when residents move out or pass away, the federal budget cuts last year mean those spots can’t be given to those on the waiting list, he said.

The help is essential in the suburbs and city, where housing is expensive.

“You can’t pay a lot of rent on minimum wage,” Thrasher said.

Section 8 vouchers did help those who found housing in the new Wellness Center in Country Club Hills, Monocchio said. And the housing authority also is able to help the elderly and mentally disabled in suburbs like Matteson, he said.

But even those who apply at the building for the elderly or mentally disabled with an open waiting list in Chicago Heights are looking at an 18-month wait before they can be housed, Monocchio said. And the waiting lists for other buildings are closed, he said.

“If you aren’t on list today, you won’t get housed,” he said.

The long waiting lists mean the homeless problem has to be approached differently, he said. Rapid re-housing, an experimental program that offered assistance for a few months to those in a rough financial spots, is one way to keep families in their homes until they can get back on their feet, he said. Another possibility is purchasing foreclosed properties to expand the supply of affordable housing.

And calling legislators to ask about strengthening the budgets for social services has more effect than people think, he said.

For now, those who need assistance can visit www.findhelpsouthcook.org or call (877) 426-6515 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to find ways to access social services ranging from legal help to temporary housing to domestic violence shelters.

Help is available, Thrasher said. She told of a single mom who came to PADS with substance abuse issues, worked closely with case managers and has now been successfully housed for two years. Several other PADS guests are taking classes to finish their degrees.

“We are fortunate enough to say that we have at least one success story, if not more, for every one of those challenges,” she said.



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