West Suburban PADS had to turn people away at its homeless shelters in Oak Park and surrounding townships this past year, the first time it had to do so in its 15-year history.
“It’s unfortunate; It’s not something we want to do,” said Lynda Schueler, executive director of PADS.
Despite adding two churches in 2005?”PADS now has 11 sites, including Austin Boulevard Christian Church and Oak Park Temple?”and expanding its overnight shelter season from September to May in 2003, the homeless provider has seen the demand for shelter steadily increasing.
Schueler, though, said PADS is helping as many as it can.
“We see ourselves as a safety net so people don’t land on the street,” she said.
A site generally can support 50-70 “guests” as PADS officials prefer to call them. Austin Boulevard Church is one of the sites. Most of the churches host one night of shelter a week. First United Church of Oak Park hosts two shelter nights on Monday and Tuesday. But PADS saw as many as 3-5 additional clients each night at a given site, said Alan Arbuckle, emergency shelter manager for PADS.
Those numbers may not seem like a lot, but there’s only so much space available, which is on a first-come, first-served basis, said Arbuckle.
The majority of clients, about 75 percent, are individual men. Women represent 15 percent of clients while families, including children, make up 10 percent.
Arbuckle said the circumstances leading someone to shelter hasn’t changed, whether it’s kids kicked out of their homes, or a just-released former inmate with nowhere to go, for example.
PADS estimated that it provided roughly 10,000 nights of shelter from Sept. 15 to May 14 in 2004-05, and more than 32,000 meals during the same period. The shelters open at 7:30 in the evening and close at 7 in the morning. Some sites provide just overnight bed space. Most provide shelter, dinner, breakfast and a sack lunch for guests to take with them when they leave.
However, that doesn’t allow much of an opportunity for personalized assistance to individual clients, Schueler ackowledged.
“There’s little time to interact with guests,” she said. “They start lining up by 7:15 [p.m.], they’re in by 7:30, they have dinner at 8, and the lights are off by 9 o’clock. There’s not a lot of quality time, but we do try to infuse some services.” Those services include case management through the homeless prevention program, where clients receive assistance with rent payments and utility bills. Those services and others, such as some medical assistance and a legal clinic are offered by PADS during the day.
Arbuckle said some of the old stereotypes about the homeless still exist, but the majority of those stereotypes don’t represent the average homeless person.
Many of the clients at PADS have high school diplomas or some kind of college education, said Arbuckle. Most are employed but don’t make enough to cover rent. Arbuckle said a large portion of their clients are veterans, and some are in their mid-to-late 20s. Very few of them look like “bums” or “bag ladies,” he said.
“You would see them on the street and you would never know. They don’t fit the stereotype of what you think a homeless person is. There are some who fit that stereotype, but a great deal don’t.”
Arbuckle added that those who are homeless don’t want to be.
“A homeless shelter is the last resort,” he said. “You’ve already tried friends and family before you were put out on the street.”
Schueler said stereotypes about Oak Park not having a homeless population also exist. She noted factors such as poverty or clients with disabilities transcend where people live.
“We like to think of Oak Park as a well-to-do community. Poverty exists in various levels?”through Cook County and rural and suburban areas. You can’t put those things within boundary limits.”