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County agencies see greater need for permanent homeless shelter

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 11:37 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 11:57 p.m. CDT

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Spring often becomes tent season for the growing number of homeless in McHenry County.

Staffers and volunteers at McHenry County PADS perform an annual spring ritual where they give the homeless population donated sleeping bags and tents and wish them on their way, not knowing whether they will come back to receive the services designed to lift them from their transient life.

The farewells have become routine in a county that has never had a permanent homeless shelter. PADS, a division of Pioneer Center for Human Services, does partner with 10 area churches to provide temporary, overnight shelter during the colder months of October through April.

The lack of a year-round shelter and a centralized location not only forces the homeless to find cover during warmer months, but also interrupts the work of case managers and specialists to deliver services and conduct assessments of the county’s neediest, said PADS coordinator Meghan Powell-Filler.

“Having a permanent shelter would make it easier to have everything there at their disposal, so they can work on resumes and not be sleep deprived and not worry about having people steal their stuff at night,” Powell-Filler said. “It provides stability.”

Questions over the ability to fund and financially sustain a permanent housing shelter have so far thwarted plans to build one.

Those questions are likely to persist, as numerous county social service agencies face increased demand with decreased resources.

There are 23,277 people living in poverty in McHenry County, a 2011 estimate that jumped 9.8 percent over the previous year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The statewide number climbed 8 percent to nearly 1.9 million in 2011.

Half of the poverty in the Chicago area was concentrated in the suburbs in 2011, up from about a third in 1990, according to a report earlier this year from Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center.

Since 2009, McHenry County PADS has seen a 48 percent increase in people needing its services. In 2012 alone, PADS served 343 individuals and saw a 20 percent increase in homeless families needing shelter.

Home of the Sparrow has seen the number of homeless women and children it serves nearly double in the past two years, as officials opened 13 new affordable housing units.

The 10 churches that partner with PADS have been brimming at capacity for the past two years, according to annual counts by the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness.

The lack of a permanent shelter underscores the issues facing the county’s social service agencies, said Hans Mach, Continuum of Care board chairman. A greater need exists now more than ever for a year-round place where agencies can serve a growing number of clients and provide coordinated assessments, he said.

“The lack of a permanent, year-round shelter really is a gaping hole in our community ... It’s tough to really identify all your community’s homeless individuals when the site changes every night,” Mach said.

The bottom line effect

The mantra for PADS’ 12 full-time employees has become do more work with less, said Powell-Filler, who manages a $750,000 annual budget at PADS.

Since 2011, the Pioneer Center division has seen an 8 percent cut in federal funds. PADS now operates with $200,000 annually from the federal government, with community donations filling the rest of the budget.

The declining government dollars has created a holding pattern. While demand increases each year, staff levels and programs remain stagnant, Powell-Filler said.

“It’s asking our staff to do more with less,” she said. “It’s a balancing act.”

Agencies throughout the region and state also are feeling constrained resources.

Human service nonprofits have felt the brunt of budget cuts at the state level, seeing appropriations cut by $1.64 billion from 2002 to 2012, a joint study from Social IMPACT and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found.

Meanwhile, the state’s financial woes have caused more than $475 million total in overdue and backlogged payments to human service groups. In the McHenry County area, agencies are owed nearly $6.72 million as of late 2012, according to data complied by Social IMPACT.

“Since 2009, we have watched draconian cuts in the human service sector,” said Judith Gethner, executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Services, a statewide advocate for more than 800 human service nonprofits.

Illinois Partners found in an annual survey earlier this fall that 73 percent of members have been negatively affected by late state payments and budget cuts.

A large number of nonprofits are either not filling vacant positions (36 percent), tapping into reserves (34 percent) or serving fewer clients (29 percent) to make up for losses at the state level, the study found. Nearly 250 members from Illinois Partners responded.

The economic recession in the late 2000s that forced many working families to lose jobs and the lack of investment from the state in economic development and job creation have created a “perfect storm” for human service groups tasked with servicing more clients with less resources, Gethner said.

Regionally, the Northern Illinois Food Bank distributed the equivalent of 42 million meals in 2013 to the poor – the highest ever in the bank’s history, said spokeswoman Donna Lake.

The nonprofit provides food and supplies to food pantries in McHenry, Lake, Kane and 10 other counties in the Chicago area. More than 724,000 people in the food bank’s territory now live in poverty.

The group relies heavily on community donations for goods and services, accounting for 55 percent of its revenue in 2012.

“Our hungry neighbors need us, and we’re stepping up to be sure we are here in their time of need,” Lake said. “We’re working to secure more food and funding partners, to look at new ways of distributing food and reaching our hungry neighbors.”

Countywide agencies overburdened with demand also are looking more toward the community for support. John Jones, Home of the Sparrow executive director, said government funding is an increasingly unstable revenue source.

A third of the agency’s funding currently comes from government grants. The rest comes from private donations and the group’s five retail shops.

“It will support you for two or three years and then it goes away,” Jones said. “Our percentage of revenue from government grants will continue to decrease, as we see increased grants from the private sector.”

Faced with continual cuts in public funding, officials at PADS see increased donations from the community as the only way forward to sustain services.

But like many issues surrounding PADS, uncertainty plays a role in securing donations, Powell-Filler said.

“Some years, people can be generous because they are in a good place, and then they might fall on hard times,” she said. “We might not get the same money from them next year.”

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