Community Close-Up
6:27 am
Fri March 8, 2013

Close-up: DeKalb And Its Homeless Citizens

Credit Dan Klefstad / pixlr

WNIJ's Community Close-up of DeKalb examines how a community supports its most vulnerable members.

About 44,000 people live in DeKalb.  Another 5,000 students live on campus at Northern Illinois University. The city is also host to a growing number of people who sleep in their cars, on their friends’ couches, or in the county’s only homeless shelter: Hope Haven.

On any given night, 88 people stay at Hope Haven as part of emergency shelter and transitional programs.  Another 26 people with disabilities stay in a different facility as permanent residents.

Director Lesly Wicks says, during the recession and recovery, the shelter had a waiting list of 35 people. An expansion last year added 5,000 square feet and 30 beds.

"Because of the expansion," Wicks says, "we eliminated the waiting list. But the growing number of families with children is probably our biggest population that we’re dealing with.”

In Hope Haven's kitchen, residents prepare pasta for lunch.
In Hope Haven's kitchen, residents prepare pasta for lunch.

Wicks says the entire cost of the expansion -- $1 million -- came from within the community. According to Wicks, Hope Haven depends on a group of 2,000 donors who help during times of government cutbacks.

A big issue lately is delayed payments from the state, which come in the form of a block grant. “We’ll be seven, eight months into our fiscal year," Wicks says, "and won’t be notified if we’ll get money that year.  So it’s really hard to make decisions about staffing levels and services.”

The money Hope Haven receives pays for salaries for the staff of 25 and services -- which include classes on software, resume writing, or preparing for a GED. But in a county where the unemployment rate is close to 8%, it’s not unusual for residents to stay for extended periods.

Shirley (we're only using her first name) is nine months into her second stay at Hope Haven. “Five years ago, I was working at Kishwaukee Hospital as certified nursing assistant," she says. "That’s when Jonathan got sick.”

Jonathan is her son. Shirley says he needed a heart transplant. "He got his heart on Easter Sunday, five years ago," she says. "He’s doing good.  He’s playing football.”

Jonathan’s doing so well he recently broke a high school athletic record. But his medication costs a lot of money, and he has frequent visits to the doctor. For a time, Shirley was his full-time caregiver, which meant she couldn’t work. When she had an opportunity to return to her old job, another problem surfaced:

“I don’t know what it is," Shirley says, "but I’m scared to go to work. I’m scared something’s going to happen. And I’m seeing counseling for that.”

She sees her counselor on Tuesdays, and a psychiatrist each Wednesday. Both professionals include Hope Haven in their rounds.

Shirley had nothing but positive things to say about Hope Haven. Another resident, Mike, offered similar praise for the quality of the facility, the friendliness of the staff, and the range of services available. He came to Hope Haven in early October, after staying at a shelter in Rockford.

Mike says he left the Rockford shelter because they didn't provide a phone. "If you didn't have your own phone," he says, "you didn't receive calls from employers. You had to rely on email." Mike says he got a cell phone at Hope Haven, which was donated.

The amenities offered by Hope Haven might lead one to wonder:  What’s the incentive to leave? A common criticism of homeless shelters is they create a warehouse effect, delaying the return to self-sufficiency. This perception results from an older service model, according to Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Roman describes it this way:

“What we used to do, when people became homeless, we had the theory that they needed to spend long periods in transitional housing, or shelter or temporary housing, getting services, and then they would be housing ready. Now, it’s more to get people in housing faster and then deliver the services.”

Roman says this model accelerates the transition to employment, contributing to the tax base.

Mike wants to be one of these success stories. "I'd like to work with computers," he says. "I love formatting on Microsoft Word." He also says he'd like to build and repair computers.

Shirley wants to go back to her former employer, Kishwaukee Hospital. “I want to go and do medical assistance so I can work in the clinics," she says. "I’m not a spring chicken anymore, so I can’t pull and push on the patients like I used to. But when I worked at Kish I loved doing that kind of work. I worked in the ICU, I worked with the babies, I took EKGs.”

Hope Haven Director Wicks says DeKalb is lucky to have a network of services for people in need. Her agency coordinates with Ben Gordon Center, which offers mental health and addiction treatment, and Safe Passage, which helps victims of domestic and sexual violence. Wicks says, in rural areas, these services are scattered across several counties. And, she says, agencies in Chicago view each other as competitors for limited funding. In DeKalb, Wicks says, each agency sticks to its specialty.

“I’m not going to start a youth counseling division at Hope Haven, because I know Youth Service Bureau does that very well," Wicks says.

“If I had to be homeless, I’d prefer to be homeless in DeKalb.”

About Community Close-Up:

The WNIJ audience includes a wide geographic area in diverse communities with a wide range of challenges and opportunities. This occasional series will inform our audience -- both on air and online -- of activities, opportunities and events in individual communities to build common understanding among listeners of the government, business and social climate in northern Illinois.