Making the homeless count

Tim’s path to homelessness has been long and arduous.

He worked in Kentucky tobacco fields when he was 8 years old. His father was a physically abusive alcoholic who moved Tim’s family 11 times in one year. Tim left home at 14.

Tim now is 52 and one of the hundreds of homeless people living in McHenry County. Last week, McHenry County Public Action to Deliver Shelter and Pioneer Center for Human Services organized a “point-in-time” survey to identify how many homeless individuals live in the county. The numbers from the 12th annual survey still are being tallied.

Tim has spent the past 90 days with PADS, a decision that saved his life, he said.

“I have clean clothes. I’m fed. I’m motivated,” said Tim, whose last name has been withheld at the request of PADS. “When I just about gave up, they were there. They’re the ones that made me feel human again.”

The 2012 survey found 203 homeless individuals. PADS coordinator Matthew Kostecki said he expects the number to go up this year and believes the weak economy and cold weather both play roles in an increase.

“Each year is different,” he said. “You see a different face each year. [The] last two years we’ve seen a lot of 18- to 24-year-olds. This year, we’ve seen more families come in.”

Home of the Sparrow is a transitional housing program specifically for women and children in McHenry County, and this year it expects to see a 50 percent increase in the number of homeless people it serves.

“Clearly McHenry County has a homeless person problem,” said John Jones, executive director at Home of the Sparrow. Jones said it’s important for organizations such as his to provide support programs that turn homeless people into self-sufficient members of society.

“If you don’t get to the root causes of homelessness, they’re going to be homeless again,” he said.

Part of the reason Home of the Sparrow will see an increase in homeless individuals is because it has added 13 housing units, but Debbie DeGraw, vice president of marketing and development, said that over 10 years she has seen a steady increase of homeless people in McHenry County.

McHenry County PADS, like Home of the Sparrow, prides itself in being an organization that provides more than just shelter. It serves hundreds of people a year with emergency and transitional housing, psychiatric care, addiction recovery care and counseling services.

“McHenry County PADS is not a shelter,” Kostecki said. “It has everything to offer someone to get out of homelessness. People hear about PADS and think it’s just a homeless shelter. We go to extremes to help a person get out of homelessness.”

There is room for 34 people to sleep at the PADS shelter at 14411 Kishwaukee Valley Road in Woodstock.

“Sleeping rooms are a case-by-case situation,” McHenry County PADS caseworker Melissa O’Donnell said. “We try to do work with families.”

McHenry County PADS focuses on families because other locations aren’t as family-friendly. PADS partners with several churches in McHenry County to provide additional housing for homeless individuals, some of which – for safety concerns – don’t allow women and children.

“If a family shows up, we try to help them and move them to a safer environment,” said Kathy Thompson, co-administrator at Cary United Methodist Church.

The church, which opens its doors Saturday nights for homeless individuals, can at times get rowdy because of people who are alcoholics or have a mental illness, Thompson said. The church will not allow drinking in the building and will not let people stay who smell as though they have been drinking.

Cary United Methodist averages 50 homeless people a night, a number that has increased over the past two years, Thompson said.

When numbers are released for the 2013 point-in-time survey, they likely won’t reflect the actual number of homeless people in McHenry County.

The numbers won’t account for young adults who are “couch surfing, the young mothers staying in a friend’s basement or others who are missed because they choose not to use the services of PADS or other shelters,” DeGraw said.

For Tim, PADS has given him a second chance at life. He said he is close to landing a job, and he has been enrolled in classes at McHenry County College to get his GED. From there, Tim said he hopes to get a job as an underwater welder on an offshore oil platform.

“If I mess up [at MCC], I’m going back again, and back again,” he said. “As long as they let me back in, I’m going back until I get that GED.”

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