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Need for aid soars as resources shrink

Where to go for help:

Illinois Department of Human Services; (800) 843-6154;

Greater Chicago Food Depository; (773) 247-3663;

The Corporation for Supportive Housing;

Homeless Prevention Call Center; in Cook County suburbs, (877) 426-6515; in Chicago: 311

Updated: November 25, 2011 8:03AM

Local social service organizations say they’re struggling to keep pace with requests for help from the rising number of poor people in the face of government funding cuts and a continued weak economy that also has reduced charitable giving.

At Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora, demand for help has come in waves, said Executive Director Ryan Dowd.

“Since the recession began, we’re probably on our fourth or fifth major wave of new homeless individuals and families,” he said. “This last wave, being the worst yet, hit in August. We set an all-time agency record for most number of people in one night.

“We had every bed in the whole building full. We pushed tables aside to put down more beds. We had people sleeping in chairs and had seven people volunteer to sleep outside.”

As the only homeless shelter in Aurora, he’s worried about the winter months.

“If we reach the point where we say we have maximum capacity, at that point we’re not referring to another shelter. We’re referring to a bridge. The game starts to change because sleeping outside is no longer just a nuisance or an inconvenience, it’s potentially deadly.”

Food pantries say they’re also feeling strained. All nine of the food pantries operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago were severely depleted at the end of August—a first for the organization, said Chief Executive Officer Monsignor Michael Boland.

On a recent weekday at the Catholic Charities food pantry in South Holland, the shelves were sparse with food.

Catholic Charities has responded to the shortage of food and funding by encouraging more people to have food drives and by reducing the days and hours some pantries are open.

The Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry has had to decrease the amount of food it gives out because of a surge in the number of people needing help, said Marilyn Weisner, executive director.

The shelter gets grant funding from the Emergency Food Shelter program, but the federal program’s budget was cut by 40 percent for this fiscal year, she said. Another federal program run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture last August provided 12,000 pounds of food to the pantry.

“This August, we got 6,000,” Weisner said. “We’ve been told that budget was also cut and we can expect to see that kind of decrease ongoing.”

Meanwhile the amount of money brought in through fundraising was down over the last fiscal year, she said.

State funding for homeless shelters was cut by 52 percent for fiscal year 2012 in the Department of Human Services budget, Dowd said, noting the shelter used to get around $135,000 but now gets about $65,000.

“Why homeless shelters got cut by over half in the middle of a recession is a complete mystery to me, but that’s the reality,” he said.

The shelter, a comprehensive homeless resource center, provides case management housing services, job training and employment services, as well as mental health, legal and substance abuse counseling services and help to veterans and children.

“The good news is we’re getting people employed,” Dowd said of recent hiring results. “The bad news is that (those in need) are just coming in so much faster than they were before that we can’t keep up.”

During normal economic times, the shelter gets in 16 new people each week and gets out 16 people per week, Dowd said. But these aren’t normal times.

“Now it’s 30 to 40 people coming in per week, and we’re only getting 17 people out,” Dowd said. “That’s a problem.”

The shelter, meant to accommodate 145, has had as many as 214 people housed there on a record night.

At Chicago-based Heartland Human Care Services, its Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, a federal stimulus-funded program through the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, is slated to end next June. The program allows for up to 18 months of assistance, including a short-term housing subsidy and case management and housing location services.

“In the last two years, we’ve had to close our referral lines at least three times because we’d gone beyond our caseload capacity for the program,” said Lisa Mayse-Lillig, Heartland’s director of housing services.

Social service organizations don’t expect the situation to improve soon, particularly with stimulus-funded programs to aid people ending and unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed running out in the still weak job market.

“There are going to be households that just are not going to be able to make it on their own,” said Mayse-Lillig.

“The challenges are going to be extraordinary,” Boland said. “The people that come to us want to work. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of opportunities for employment, which really would solve a lot of problems because if (people are) working, they can pay their bills. If they can pay their bills, it has a ripple effect” reducing the need for help.

United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, which is also grappling with greater need, said its worked to be more strategic in how resources are deployed so they can have greater impact.

Boland said, “obviously, the more generous people can be to helping, whether that’s with food drives or clothing drives or ways of reaching out to help people, that would be a tremendous thing to do.”

But he stressed, now isn’t the time for government paralysis, given the immensity of the challenges, adding, corporations need to focus more of their charitable giving to organizations working on the front-lines to help the poor.

“I think corporations have to realize we are in a crisis, one that is really affecting a lot of people,” he said.

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