During my 20-plus years of assisting McHenry County residents who are homeless, I’ve found that people often are surprised to hear that homelessness exists in McHenry County.
After their shock subsides they often ask, “Who becomes homeless and why?”
In the past, my response was just what you might expect: Homeless people were typically young, single unemployed men who usually had drug or alcohol addictions, or mental illness, or problems with the law. And they often had a combination of all of those factors. Women became homeless, too, but they were typically young, single mothers who simply could not afford a place of their own.
Some of my prior assessments still hold true today, but now things have changed. Job layoffs, high housing costs, expensive gasoline, inflated grocery prices and more have contributed toward the inability of some to maintain stable housing.
Of course, young, single men and young, single mothers still become homeless, but now it touches people who never before have experienced homelessness: married couples; older, single adults; and even the elderly. Many have jobs, although most have experienced a decrease in their earnings. Many are college educated. Most have no complicating social issues. But with the rise in housing costs and the decline in earning power, they just cannot afford to keep a roof over their heads. Often their friends and families are in the same situation, so they cannot afford to offer assistance.
Those of us who work in social services will tell you it is generally easier for us to find assistance for those who are younger than 19 or older than 62. But that large in-between age group is difficult to assist. They are the “overlooked homeless” as they are too old for youth services and too young for most senior services. They are frightened because they never have been through this before. They are embarrassed because they never thought they’d have to ask for help. They don’t want to stay in a shelter, and they probably don’t need a lot of the social services offered there anyway. They simply don’t have enough income to keep a roof over their head.
So what is being done about it?
The McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness meets at 9 a.m. every second Thursday at the McHenry County Government Center Annex building in Woodstock to discuss issues surrounding homelessness. Whenever we find a gap in a service area, we try to find a way to offer that needed service.
The Continuum of Care obtains funding for its members so the needed services can be offered to people who are homeless. Several of the member agencies are changing their focus from emergency shelter to permanent supportive housing. This will help some of the people in that overlooked age group, but there is not yet enough funding to help all of them.
The Continuum of Care has been in existence in a variety of forms since 1996. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. If you are interested in fighting homelessness, come and join us. Meetings are open to the public, and we can always use more help.
• Sue Rose has been the community service director of McHenry County Housing Authority since 1996. She has been a member of the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness since the day that it began 18 years ago.