It is six o’clock on a Sunday night. Inside First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, volunteers hustle around the kitchen and parish hall, laying out mattresses and cooking containers of vegetables and meatloaf in large, metal pans. Outside, there is a growing line of men and women, bags in tow, waiting to check in for a good night’s sleep and a hot meal. This is a PADS shelter.
PADS, standing for Public Action to Deliver Shelter, is a DuPage County outreach organization which focuses on providing displaced individuals and families with temporary shelter, meals,
interim housing, and job counseling. Spanning several towns, their shelter program serves around sixty homeless individuals nightly, 365 days a year. Tonight it is less than a block away from Glenbard West.
Many volunteers are drawn from the high school. William Lanzillo, a senior, and Jack Kelly, a junior, are both serving tonight. William, who has served at PADS for two years, says that the direct impact of the shelter service sets PADS apart from other outreach organizations.
“It’s very rewarding, because you directly help people who are in need of shelter […] I would definitely recommend volunteering here,” said Lanzillo.
“Rewarding.” Almost every volunteer serving food uses this word to describe their experience at PADS, but not because volunteering is an act of self-gratification. Sharing a meal with the people here and making them feel at home and cared for is where the reward lies for PADS volunteers.
“There is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says David Dornblaser, the head PADS coordinator for St. Mark’s Church in Glen Ellyn. “It is always ‘we.’ We try to minimize the barriers here.”
The barriers of which Dornblaser speaks often create a distorted picture of homelessness. PADS works to provide their guests- those who spend the night in their shelters- with the sense of humanity that these people often lose to the public opinion. Along with food and a place to sleep, PADS shelters provide amenities such as toiletries, hot showers, and a television guests can watch after their meal.
“We will provide updates on the score of the Hawks game,” Dornblaser promises as the guests sit down to eat, eliciting laughs from the fans scattered among the tables. Providing a small piece of calm and care is part of what makes the PADS program unique.
When one thinks of extreme poverty, slums and rural villages in third-world countries often come to mind. Given the United States’ establishment as a first world country, it is hard to imagine that
such a problem hits closer to home. For this reason, many citizens of DuPage County are shocked to learn that over seventy one thousand residents live below the poverty line, with twenty one thousand of this number living in extreme poverty. Homelessness remains a pervasive problem in DuPage county, despite community efforts to combat it.
Bridge Communities, a local organization dedicated to helping homeless families find transitional housing, states, “For many Americans, the word ‘homeless’ evokes a mental image of a single male with some type of substance abuse or mental health problem loitering in a public place […] In reality, the picture of homelessness in America today is a family portrait.”
As dismaying of a fact as it is, there is truth in this statement. The majority of the homeless people in DuPage county are families, most with a single parent and children in school, moving through emergency or transitional housing. Displaced families are what Bridge Communities call the “invisible homeless.” These mothers, fathers, and children work and attend school as normal, quietly receiving aid from friends and family to stay afloat. Because of the number of homeless families in this area, Bridge Communities and PADS have developed family-centric aid programs
to help mothers, fathers, and children in the DuPage area.
Often, these families did nothing to “deserve” their situation, as many are inclined to believe of the homeless population. One of these families published their testimony on the Bridge Communities’ website saying that when one of the parents lost their job, they were evicted with nowhere to go. PADS has recently created a family shelter system in which homeless parents can spend the night in a safe space with their children.
“The number of homeless children who come through [PADS] is sad,” David Dornblaser stated. This number of which he speaks do not often appear homeless, as aid programs are set up to maintain client confidentiality. Regardless, they make up an enormous portion of the homeless population in DuPage County. In fact, because of the number of homeless children in the area, the average age of a homeless person in DuPage county is eight years old.
There is room for change, but as Bridge and PADS are both nonprofit organizations, they rely on partnerships and community support in order to provide services to homeless individuals and families. In order to raise awareness and funds, Bridge Communities hosts a popular event in the county called Sleep Out Saturday. During this event, participants spend a night sleeping outside to experience what it is like to be homeless. Many high schoolers take part in Sleep Out Saturday every year. Claire Tylke, a junior, chose to raise money for Bridge Communities as a part of her
Hundred Dollar Project, organizing a group of West students to sleep outside this past November. She is passionate about the problems surrounding homelessness in the community, and Sleep Out Saturday made it simple for her to make a large impact on a large problem.
“[Homelessness] is an issue that we see all around us. We see it around town, in the city, and among our classmates. It is a very real problem that hits very close to home. […] I believe that everyone deserves a safe place that they can call home,” Tylke stated.
Our community can make sure that everyone has a place they can call home. It is easy for high schoolers to get involved in the fight against homelessness. In addition to events such as Sleep Out Saturday, students can help the homeless population by serving at one of the many PADS locations in the county, tutoring children and adults at the Bridge Communities Learning Resource Center, or simply donating to one of the many organizations in the county that services homeless individuals. By removing the stigma surrounding those affected by homelessness and working to reduce the homeless population overall, DuPage County can bring stability and safety to this demographic.
To learn more about homelessness in DuPage County, volunteer, or donate, please visit any of the sites listed below.
This article was originally published in the May issue of the Glen Bard Newspaper.