Volunteers count homeless in western suburbs
Teri Curran, West Suburban PADS director of programs, conducts a homelessness survey with Diane Coward at 5th Avenue and Lake Street in Maywood on Jan. 24. Coward, 51, has lived on the streets and stayed in shelters in Maywood, Wheaton and Waukegan for the past decade. | Natasha Wasinski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 1, 2013 7:00AM
A gloveless woman in a down jacket approached a parked white minivan in the dead of night last Thursday asking for help.
Little did she know the group of do-gooders inside had been looking for her.
Teri Curran, director of programs at West Suburban PADS in Maywood, rolled down the van window and asked the woman if she was homeless. Curran had information and supplies, but also wanted to ask about her condition.
Roughly two dozen trained volunteers had fanned out from West Suburban PADS before dawn Jan. 24 to survey homelessness in the surrounding areas.
Every two years the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, Westchester, conducts a nightly count of unsheltered people in north, west and south suburbs.
In teams, they cruised the streets north of I-290, scoping out “hot spots” where the homeless are known to take shelter: public parks, forest preserves, viaduct bridges, train stations and emergency care centers.
Diane Coward found Curran’s team around 5:30 a.m. on Lake Street near 5th Avenue, where she and other homeless men and women sleep behind a building.
Coward, 51, had lived with her mother in a house in Maywood. But for the past decade, she has stayed in shelters in Wheaton and Waukegan that accommodate women. She also sleeps on the streets.
That night it was 6 degrees.
Curran noted earlier how studies have shown most people seek entry into shelters within 10 miles of where they’ve grown up. Mental illness is reported to be third-largest cause of homelessness.
Coward fit both bills: her bi-polar disorder has gone untreated. She’s had breast cancer, and suffered frostbite and heat strokes. She’s gone to the hospital eight times in the last year.
Asked if she’s ever been a victim of domestic violence, Coward replied: “All my life.”
Though not a drinker, Coward said she sometimes turns to a bottle of wine when sleeping outside.
“With cold weather like this, you’ve got to have something,” she said. “We need something to keep us warm.”
One of the group’s volunteers, Scott Jensen, told Coward they were there to help. The “goodie bag” they had given her had food, toiletries, a blanket, pair of gloves, gift cards, and information for assistance.
“We want to get you help because I’ve been on the streets myself,” Jensen said. “I know what it’s like.”
Jensen was homeless for two years after losing his disabilities benefits. The benefits have since been reinstated and, today, he lives in an Oak Park apartment through a permanent supportive housing program.
He gives back to the agencies that once helped him, and explained how he struggled to pick himself back up.
“A lot of it for me, too, is how positive and motivated and determined you are to improve your life,” Jensen said. “But when you’re out on the streets and you’re homeless, you’re all alone and you’re scared.
“It’s about learning to build trust with people who can help.”
One goal of conducting the street surveys is to determine who was most vulnerable or at risk of dying on the streets in order to pair people with housing programs, Curran said.
The need for additional units, however, is on the rise. Compared to this time last year, West Suburban PADS has seen a 17 percent increase in the number of people seeking shelter, reported Curran.
The shelter is able to temporarily house 57 people a night. Though it provided eight more beds over capacity one night last week, 17 people still had to be turned away.
Coward was one of only a handful of homeless persons the deployed teams found that night on the street. At Harlem and North avenues, volunteers approached and called out to a makeshift tent of blankets but got no response. They left behind a bag of information and supplies.
Of the estimated 900 other people without homes in the area, Curran said: “You have to hope they’re in a shelter somewhere.”