Hesed House population reaches record high, may have to turn residents away
BY ERIKA WURST firstname.lastname@example.org October 13, 2012 1:10PM
Will James, bottom left, laughs as be lays down to read before the lights go off for the last night at the temporary PADS shelter across from Hesed House on Wednesday, October 10, 2012. With renovations completed, the men will move back into their floor at Hesed tomorrow night. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
To make a monetary donation online, visit: help.hesedhouse.org
Physical donations can be dropped off at: Hesed House, 659 S. River St. Aurora, Illinois 60506
Immediate donation needs include: soap, diapers, cereal, shampoo, deodorant, razors, bike locks and chains, socks, over-the-counter medications, and gift cards to Walmart or grocery stores.
For a complete list of needed items, and a holiday wish list, visit www.hesedhouse.org
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:11AM
In the eight years Ryan Dowd has worked as executive director of the Aurora area’s only homeless shelter, he hasn’t had to turn any homeless residents away due to a lack of space. He’s always just “made it work.”
Soon, that might change. Capacity at Hesed House has reached an all-time high in recent weeks when, on some nights, more than 220 residents have lined up for a spot at the emergency shelter. Technically, the shelter has a capacity of 145 people. Usually, it houses around 160 to 180 people, Dowd said.
“I was told we tried (setting a solid capacity limit) in the late 1980s, but the volunteers refused to turn people away. The idea was overridden by the kindness of volunteers,” Dowd said.
While Dowd has been able to welcome everyone seeking shelter up until this point, the situation may turn grave as employees could potentially have to turn people away.
“We’re not even sure where our capacity line is,” Dowd said. “We’re the only emergency shelter in town. There are a couple different bridges, abandoned homes, or getting arrested — but those options are not good ones.”
When Hesed House opened its doors in 1982, only one person sought shelter. The next year, the population hovered around 17. These days, people are sleeping in the library and the foyer. Cots have been set up in the children’s playroom. Sleeping quarters for children and their mothers are full. Inviting everyone in might not be an option.
Dowd said the shelter has a few breaking points — like space to sleep — which could snap by this week’s end. Construction on the men’s wing at the shelter took place this summer, forcing residents into a temporary shelter across the street. That work was finished Thursday, and residents were moved from their current sleeping quarters with no heat or plumbing, back into the main building.
The temporary shelter had more space than will be available in the permanent shelter. Any possessions the residents will have to be winnowed down.
“They have to decide what to keep, and what not to keep,” Dowd said. “They can keep seasonally appropriate clothing only. Even if it’s your favorite pair of shorts, it has to go.”
Earlier this month, in what he thought would be an intimate gathering of five residents offering input on possible solutions, Dowd was shocked to find more than 70 residents ready to weigh in on who stays and who goes.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Dowd said. “There are 101 ways to do this, and every scenario hurts someone. Take 200 people and pick which five should sleep outside when it’s 10 degrees. Imagine that’s your responsibility. In some sense, you’re kind of playing God.”
First to go will be residents from outside the area.
“People come from Elgin and Chicago, but that’s over with,” said resident Lorenszo Williams. “There will be no more of that.”
Aside from that, the lines are blurred. Williams was hit by a semi-truck and is disabled, meaning he’ll likely have a bed. Other residents, like Scott Schweitzer, might not be as lucky. After a decade of living outside the shelter, Schweitzer was forced to return to Hesed House a week ago. If the shelter turns him away, he said living in the woods will be his next option.
Causes of overcrowding
If historical trends continue, the numbers should start to fall by January, Dowd said. That’s contrary to what some people might expect to happen at a shelters. Many think that as the temperatures outside drop, the population seeking shelter rises. But Dowd said that isn’t necessarily the case.
Family members are more apt to take in relatives during the winter months. Utilities tend to do shutoffs over the summer for legal and humanitarian reasons. Mothers with children flock to the shelter come school time when they’re forced to re-enter districts. Families that had been staying with friends or relatives outside the Aurora area return in the fall, Dowd said. When they do return, it isn’t easy to find permanent housing. The number of homes in foreclosure has ramped up the population of renters, which has driven up rental costs, Dowd said.
“Who loses? The people hanging on at the bottom. What used to rent for $600 is now renting for $800,” Dowd said. “(Our residents) have been phased out of the rental market.”
Also contributing to the high numbers is the lack of jobs tailored to the homeless population. Industrial, warehouse and transportation jobs are the only sectors that have a substantial impact on homeless residents.
Dowd said that the number of people finding residences outside the shelter is on par with where it has always been. People are getting out faster and better than ever before, he said. It’s when the number of people coming in surpasses the number of people exiting that Hesed House runs into predicaments.
About 16 residents move out each week, but around 30 new residents are moving in. Dowd has been forced to decide whether money should be spent on additional housing, or on resources to help funnel current residents out.
Currently, 92 percent of residents are out of the shelter within a year, and around half find alternative housing within two weeks, Dowd said.
“They’re just coming in faster than we can get them out,” she said.
One problem that comes with overcrowding is the stress it causes to residents, Dowd said. When there is more square footage per person, the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. People aren’t bumping into each other or stepping on each other’s feet.
“Space takes on a different meaning to individuals who are homeless in a way non-homeless individuals can’t understand,” Dowd said. “The crowded numbers exasperate the natural stress of not having a place to call home ... having zero square footage in the world that you can go to that is yours is hard to even imagine.”
With additional bodies comes an additional need not only for space, but for food. More than 70 churches volunteer to help feed the hungry, but they’re having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the crowds.
“When (the churches) initially began volunteering, we said, ‘Hey, can you feed 10 people a night?’ Now we say, ‘Hey, can you feed 200?’ ” Dowd said.
Where a handful of volunteers used to suffice, more than 25 helpful bodies is now the norm. Despite the increasing demands, “there has been no point where they’ve said they can’t do it,” Dowd said.
Still, the shelter’s emergency stash of food, which can be quickly served without refrigeration, is depleting.
“For a while, we were running out of food every night, and 20 more people would still come in,” Dowd said. Canned stew is ideal in terms of serving a complete and easy meal that can be prepared even at 10 p.m.
In an effort to make the problem a tangible one, Dowd left his own home last week to sleep on a bunk at the chilly, emergency shelter. Doing this helped him understand the gravity of the situation but left him with no real solution. The obvious answer, Dowd and residents both agreed, is that kids always get in. Anything beyond that gets complicated.
“The decision needs to be made with real human beings in mind, not some theoretical person,” he said. “What if it had been my bunk mate who didn’t get in?...My hope is that we survive this season, and next year implement what we’ve thought of this year. But, we could be implementing these things next week. It’s been really weighing on me very heavily. It weighs on my conscience.
“If we chose poorly, I’m not going to die, but someone else might,” Dowd said, tears forming eyes.
“The consequences of this decision will be born out by other people. It’s challenging, ethically and morally.”