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Homeless find ‘Hope’ in Chicago Suburbs

Hope Day Center. Photo by Lauren Rossi.

Located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the Hope Day Center is a part of a charitable organization called Journeys from Pads to Hope. The agency has provided social services such as employment and health counseling to homeless individuals for two decades.

Started in 1992, the facility’s mission is to help those in need of shelter, medical services and career placement. The Hope Center serves areas in northwest Cook County such as Palatine, Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect.

In addition to offering services to those without shelter, the agency is actively involved in trying to prevent homelessness by providing career guidance to the recently unemployed.

Although there are many similar organizations in Chicago, the Hope Center addresses the growing problem in the suburbs. The nonprofit Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness reports that more than 3,000 people experience homelessness in suburban Cook Country every year. According to the Hope Center’s 2011 report, the agency served numerous clients last year.

Pat Harrington, the shelter’s director, has been working for the Hope Center for 11 years.

“Without our help there would be a lot more people living in their cars,” Harrington says.

As the shelter director, Harrington is responsible for overseeing more than 3,000 volunteers at all of the center’s emergency shelter locations. “I make sure that everything runs smoothly at the sites,” Harrington explains.

The Hope Center directs those in need of temporary shelter to overnight sites. These locations are referred to as Public Action to Deliver Shelter, or PADS. These sites are housed in churches and schools throughout the suburbs. The designated locations take turns one night of the week from October through April. The individuals receive a hot dinner, breakfast and a bagged lunch for the next day.

In addition to assigning the volunteers and running their mandatory training program, Harrington makes sure that those with substance abuse problems receive coaching to avoid any problems at the shelters.

“We also work in conjunction with the local police to ensure that individuals seeking refuge from the winter weather do not have any outstanding warrants for their arrest in order to assure safety,” she said. “Once everything is cleared with the State police, they then receive an ID which allows them to go to the assigned site.”

If anyone is found to have unresolved problems with legal authorities, he or she will not be granted access to the shelter sites.

“If someone is running from the law, this is the last place they will come, because the word gets out quickly that they will be discovered,” Harrington said.

Harrington says that most of the Hope Center’s clients are respectful to the staff and are law-abiding citizens. The majority are grateful for the services. Occasionally, one person at the shelter may cause a disruption, and then she intervenes.

“One time, a guy kept showing up at one site at three o’clock in the afternoon,” Harrington said.. “We don’t allow loitering because the sites are at schools with children. After being warned many times, I explained the situation and finally he was receptive,” she said.

While minor problems occur at the sites, Harrington says the most challenging part of working at the facility is the increase in the number of homeless families.

“This past year, because of the economy, the number of single women with children seeking our services has risen.” Harrington said, ” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the father is not involved, so the mother receives no child support and has lost her job, and it’s just a heartbreaking situation.”

The increase in homeless families reflects a growing national trend. According to the 2011 U.S. Conference of Mayors status report on hunger and homelessness, the number of families with children who are seeking shelter has increased in the past year. Harrington explains the agency tries to find them a more perment living situation and place them in a job.

“I make sure that they have a safe transportation to the various sites, because while many have a car, they can’t afford to fill their tank because of rising gas prices.” Harrington says. In those cases, a staff member will pick them up in a car and drive the family to the site.

Harrington says it’s gratifying to witness so many success stories that have occurred as a result of the program. She maintains contact with people whose situation has been improved by the center.

“They are starting their life all over again, and they need guidance about everything from how to budget their money to simple things like pursuing hobbies and how to spend their free time in a productive and responsible manner,” Harrington said.

Harrington described one client who benefitted from her advice. A couple of years ago, the man was homeless, and went to Hope Center seeking help for alcoholism. As a result of treatment, the man slowly improved and obtained employment, as well as an apartment. However, Harrington warned him about the dangers of relapse, because of his association with others still engaged in maladaptive behaviors.

“He would visit them at a train station, which was their hangout. I asked him, How many of them are genuinely happy for you, and how many of them are going to draw you down the wrong road again?” Harrington said.

“Fortunately, he realized the error of his ways and stopped associating with them,” she added. “Until they are strong enough [to be on their own] that type of guidance is imperative to their recovery and ability to maintain a stable life.”

Another employee at the Hope Center is Clinical Director Todd Stull, who has worked at the facility for eight years.

“The most challenging things have been a 30 percent increase in the number of people we see in the past couple of years, coupled with a decrease in funding,” Stull said. “It is a just a perfect storm.”

According to Hope Center’s 2011 annual report, the agency received about $5,000 less government grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development than the previous year. The majority of the agency’s assets come from public contributions, totaling almost $470,000.

Stull says that the mortgage crisis has also been a reason for an increase in clients.

“Due to forecloses, a lot of people with advanced degrees are also coming here,” he said. “And we try to place them with jobs. There are also many people that are underemployed and are in danger of becoming homeless.”

He emphasizes that in addition to finding employment for clients, the center also provides them with basic supplies of food and toiletries while they are experiencing hardship.

Stull says his time with the Hope Center has been rewarding. He assures that many peoples’ perception of the homeless would be challenged if they encountered those helped by the facility.

“There is a negative stereotype of the homeless, that they’re dangerous, but a lot of them are good people that are just going through a rough time,” Stull said. “I tell people all the time that I witnessed more violence when I worked at a high school, than I have ever encountered here.”

While there may be difficult financial circumstances to overcome, the employees remain positive about the help that Hope Center provides.

“Everyday, I come to work and know that something I do will make difference,” Harrington says, “and that’s a good feeling.”

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.