Volunteer teams tally homeless population in DuPage
Volunteers from right, Beth Hand, Nikita Brown, and Stephanie Drop, get instructions from leader Carl Keene at the Cornerstone transitional living home in Lisle before they go out to do a survey of the homeless in Bolingbrook on Wednesday, January 30, 2013. Every two years, the county does a count of the people living on the streets and least a half-dozen agencies and organizations aid in collecting the data, going to places like parks and under bridges where they know homeless people hang out. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
DuPage County’s comprehensive inventory of the homeless, done every other year, has seen numbers trend down over the past several years.
2007: 124 unsheltered, 190 in interim housing (overnight shelters), 452 in transitional housing; total: 766
2009: 108 unsheltered, 184 in interim housing (overnight shelters), 408 in transitional housing; total: 695
2011: 33 unsheltered, 221 in interim housing (overnight shelters), 422 in transitional housing; total: 676
2013: figures will be released next week
Updated: March 2, 2013 12:14PM
Even when the mercury dips well below the freezing mark, there are people who don’t, or can’t, come inside. Some of them slept here and there in DuPage County sites amid flurries whipped by Wednesday night’s biting winds, as a fleet of volunteers fanned out to try to find and talk to them.
At least one of them knew what it feels like to have no home.
Volunteer Nikita Brown spent much of her childhood homeless. Her mom was unemployed and struggling to support Brown and her older brother when they moved to this area 18 years ago.
“I was raised in a lot of different shelters, up until I was the age of 10,” said Brown, 24, now the mother of two young kids and a full-time student at College of DuPage.
One of the shelters was in Wheaton. Others were on the south side of Chicago. For about a year, a downtown shelter was the place the family called home.
The unsheltered homeless were the focus of this week’s count, coordinated by The DuPage Continuum of Care. Crews sought out those living on the street, shared with them bags of supplies and information about shelter options, and gathered numbers that will be pulled together in the coming week to provide a quantitative picture of homelessness in the county.
Mary Keating, director of community services and chairwoman of the continuum, said the data are compiled and then submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The biennial count is a condition for the continued receipt of federal funds.
Conducted every other January, the street census requires some best guesses about where people are settling in to sleep when they have no roofs over their heads.
“They may be looking at places that are open 24 hours a day, or particular areas where people who are homeless are known to gather,” Keating said.
That usually means, at this time of year, places with heat. The effort added a team dedicated to searching forest preserves, concentrating on those with heated facilities.
“That is basically bathrooms,” said Ralph Hinkle, executive director of the Community Emergency Response Team for Milton Township, which spearheaded that part of the search.
Hinkle wasn’t too surprised when he and more than 40 volunteers came up empty after covering nearly 50 miles of trails in nine parks and preserves, including Springbrook Prairie in Naperville. Those areas are more of a draw in warm weather.
“The forest preserves in general see people come out and actually camp out,” Hinkle said. “They try to get deep into the woods.”
South Naperville resident Carl Keene, a case manager at the residential facility for homeless teen boys run by 360 Youth Services in Naperville, explained that the barriers intended to discourage entry to the preserves after dark don’t always have deterrent value.
“That does not prevent people who want to go in there and seek shelter from coming in,” he said.
Brown and two other COD students comprised a team headed by Keene that met for a strategy session before heading out to check places in and around Bolingbrook where homeless people might be found. The group had a list that included the parking lot and emergency room at Edward Hospital, the train stations, Denny’s, Meijer, hotel parking lots, vacant buildings and other potential spots.
Keene cautioned his team to be mindful of the circumstances of the homeless and respectful of their dignity.
“This is a situation of trauma,” he said. “They each have their own story, but they all revolve around trauma.”
And not all would welcome the attention. Those who live on the streets often vie for the best-hidden sleeping spots. A group of people approaching with flashlights, even a small group, could be seen as an intrusion.
“The next thing that happens is the police will roll up and tell them to move on,” Keene said. “They don’t want that.”
Beth Hand and Stephanie Drop, who headed for destinations along Route 53, picked up a tip from local police that the 24-hour McDonald’s just north of Briarcliff would be worth a look. With the manager’s help, they found two middle-aged men sitting there.
“Beth approached them, said we were taking a survey and asked if they knew of anybody who’s homeless who we could talk to,” said Drop, 23, who lives in Woodridge. “And they said, ‘We are.’”
One didn’t have much to say, but his companion related that he’d left behind a job when he moved out of the state, and has been having trouble holding a job since he returned.
Keene and Brown had joined the group, and Brown said she was glad to discover she could help the man by providing tips that will enable him to obtain a LINK card for food assistance. Still, it reminded her of a difficult time in her own life.
“It brought back a lot of memory of growing up,” she said.
Keene reminded his small crew that hard times aren’t an entirely new phenomenon. The Great Depression put many once-comfortable Americans into desperate circumstances.
“We learned something from that. As we go through time, things stabilize,” he said. “Now we’re getting situations again.”
Drop also learned something, late in the cold night. After shaking off some initial nervousness and a feeling that the task felt daunting, she gained a new understanding that the plight of some people is much worse.
“When you get done, it doesn’t seem like an inconvenience anymore,” she said. “It was a privilege to talk to these people and hear their stories.”
And she learned to appreciate the rhythms of her own life that used to feel a bit mundane.
“It makes you appreciate so much more when you crawl into bed at night after being out in the cold,” she said. “That definitely opened my eyes to the fact that not everybody gets to do that.
“Homelessness is not a big city thing. It’s happening right now, in our back yard, and we have to do something about it.”