Rogers: McHenry County in need of permanent homeless shelter

For 25 years, McHenry County churches have opened their doors to the homeless. Members have changed, but the mission remains the same: Providing the homeless with emergency food and shelter. We are the emergency sites.

Our sites are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week from October through April. We have 10 churches participating, located in Cary, Crystal Lake, Harvard, Richmond, Wonder Lake and Woodstock, with overflow sites needed for safety. We serve 25 to 70 guests nightly, depending upon weather and other variables.

People enter homelessness for myriad reasons. Recent stories include one man entering because his care facility closed, while two women entered when they were evicted from their residences – one because of debt from medical expenses, and the other because of her husband’s financial abandonment. For these people and all guests, staying in an emergency site is stark reality. The following is a sample of a 12-hour stay:

First, you find out where that night’s shelter is, get there, stand in line and wait for the doors to open at 7 p.m. You enter with an ID card from the PADS office. Otherwise, the police come and do a background check. No sex offenders, felons or people with existing warrants are allowed in. You and your bags are checked, and all contraband is confiscated.

Next, you pick a twin-size mattress on the floor. There is a fitted sheet, a regular sheet, pillow, pillowcase and blanket on your pad. You put your bag down and make up your pad before eating. After dinner, you see guests arriving late, with some coming from work or school.

At 10 p.m., lights go out, doors are locked and you are on your pad. The number of guests in the shelter determines the space between pads. Tonight, your neighbor is closer than expected. Noise from snoring and headphones is loud. You struggle to get a good night’s sleep.

Around 5:30 a.m., breakfast begins and at 6 a.m., lights are on and everyone is up. After eating, you pack your bag, clean your area, gather all the linens and get a sack lunch. The site closes at 7 a.m. – no exceptions. Once you are out the door, you wonder how you will get to the site in the next town by 7 p.m., when your 12-hour stay begins again.

Without the amazing dedication of the volunteers who drive the program – literally hundreds serving throughout the entire season – this story could not be told. They set up and take down the space, cook meals, make bag lunches and do laundry, among many other tasks. A special thank-you to them and the service they provide. Additionally, the 10 churches make a tremendous investment to support the program. The members of these congregations deserve thanks as well.

After 25 years and providing over 4,500 nights of emergency shelter, we need an alternate model. It is time for McHenry County to establish a permanent shelter because we can do better. This shelter could be administered by its own nonprofit, partner with quality county agencies providing services – such as those in the Continuum of Care – and grow the existing volunteers corps to continue their remarkable service.

If your first reaction to this is disagreement, ask yourself this question: Could you do your job and live your life as it is now if you had to move seven days a week?

• Tom Rogers is pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Woodstock, a member of the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness and a 2005 graduate of Leadership Greater McHenry County. Redeemer hosts the Wednesday emergency site, as well as a Thursday Daytime Drop-in Center for the Homeless through Woodstock Area Community Ministries. Contact him at 815-338-9370 or pastor.tom@rlcw.org.