On Jan. 4, Housing Forward, a nonprofit that serves parts of the West Side, opened an emergency shelter in the former rectory of St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Parish, 38 N. Austin Blvd. in Oak Park. The temporary winter shelter could not have opened at a better time as winter’s cold temperatures threaten the lives and health of those without shelter.
Housing Forward’s Executive Director Lynda Schueler says that the need for the space has been evident for some time.
“We have roughly 60 to 70 unsheltered clients on a wait list for our interim housing program at the Wright Inn [in Oak Park],” Schueler said. “There’s a real threat of loss of life and frostbite in the winter.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Housing Forward had to end its PADS emergency shelter program, which rotated through a variety of local parishes and faith organizations. In spite of the success of the interim housing program at the Wright Inn launched to meet some of the needs in the community, there is not enough space for the unsheltered who need housing.
In November, Schueler was in conversation with local leaders, including John Harris of the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, Father Carl Morello of St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles Parish, Reverend Kathy Nolte of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple, about a solution, when village representatives approached to ask if it was possible for Housing Forward to open an emergency shelter this winter.
As part of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Parish initiative, Oak Park’s four Catholic parishes combined into two entities — Ascension and St. Edmund’s Parish and St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy’s and St. Giles Parish.
Morello, the priest of the newly-combined St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy/St. Giles, formed a team of volunteers to plan a long-term use of the St. Catherine-St. Lucy rectory as a community hub that will offer social services and bridge the divide between Oak Park and Austin.
The church campus on Austin Boulevard already houses a Big Shoulders School that primarily serves children from the Austin community, as well as Sister House, a temporary home for women in recovery from substance abuse issues, that occupies the former convent space. Morello says that using the rectory for social services to benefit the community is the long-term plan.
This fall, it made sense to jump in with a temporary use of the building.
“We had this empty space, and rather than let it sit empty, I said ‘Lynda, let’s do this,’” Morello said. “It fits right into the mission, the future and what we want to do.”
With willing leadership, the next step was to get the rectory ready for inhabitants. The rectory was built at 38 N. Austin Blvd. in 1963 and the space was meant to house five priests.
It included five suites with a common area on the second floor and a first floor consisting of parish offices, a dining room and a kitchen. The building needed an overhaul to meet current building codes and provide more space for Housing Forward clients.
In just a few weeks, a team of volunteers from all local parishes and four skilled tradespeople turned the rectory into habitable space, updating the heating, plumbing and electrical service to make the space safe. In addition, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were added.
Morello praised the numerous people who donated time, effort and money to make the shelter a reality in such a short time.
“For me, when we talk about the Spirit at work, this is that Spirit in the flesh,” Morello said.
“From a Christian perspective, this goes back to the gospel of Matthew, where we hear from Jesus, ‘Whatsoever you did for the least of among us, you did for me.’ We’re living that gospel message,” he added.
At a Jan. 4 open house hours before the shelter welcomed its first guests, Morello was joined by volunteers and community leaders who helped aid in the effort. Housing Forward’s Schueler noted that the opening of the shelter marked the organization’s 30th anniversary in the community.
Shelter Manager Dannette Salaam teared up as she described the difference the shelter would make in the community, and calling the love in the room overwhelming, Housing Forward client James Horn said the organizations has been a “cornerstone” in his life.
Schueler says the emergency shelter will share some similarities with the older PADS model of temporary shelter, but on a smaller scale. The space will have 10 beds for guests who are currently in case management with Housing Forward and five beds for the newly homeless as identified by local hospitals and police and fire departments.
Unlike PADS, there will be no rotation, and guests can sleep at the shelter from 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. every night from Jan. 4 through April.
While saying the emergency shelter is a great demonstration of harnessing the power of a community, Schueler said, “Fifteen beds is really not enough to support all of West Cook County.”
Housing Forward has received funding to help operate the shelter for two years, but the rectory space is available only for four months. Schueler says the search is on for a more permanent location to house the winter shelter in the future.
How to get involved as a volunteer
One key to the success of the emergency shelter is volunteers. Housing Forward’s Chief Development Officer Erik Johnson says volunteers were instrumental in readying the shelter for guests and emphasizes the continuing need for help from local organizations to provide teams to help manage the day-to-day work at the shelter.
There is a need for seven volunteers every night and for meals for clients. Johnson points to a number of ways people can get involved:
To learn more about the shelter program, email email@example.com
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Cherrell Jackson, volunteer and engagement manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org
For groups interested in volunteering, visit Housing Forward’s Volunteer page: housingforward.org/get-involved/volunteer