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Recalling the faces of the poorest

After breakfast residents get ready go out for day Hesed House. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

After breakfast, residents get ready to go out for the day at Hesed House. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:21AM

It hit me not all that subtly as I stood in the chill of an October night with a crowd of homeless people waiting patiently for Hesed House doors to open.

I’ve written countless stories about the Aurora shelter over the past two decades, including a few columns in recent years about fundraisers, a documentary and new programs. But I’m ashamed to say it’s been a few years since I’ve really thought about the faces behind the stories that were filled with statistics and expert interviews.

On Wednesday night I witnessed this community’s homeless up close and personal. Grizzled men with stooped shoulders stood next to young males in scuffed work boots, while women with tired smiles huddled in groups on the dimly-lit loading dock of the old warehouse.

Then there were the children. Some with Shirley Temple curls. Others with stringy locks hanging over innocent eyes that have seen too much too soon.

It’s easy to forget about the homeless here. That’s because Hesed House, under the passionate leadership of Executive Director Ryan Dowd, has done an amazing job of keeping them off Aurora’s streets, out of our alleys and abandoned buildings.

Out of sight, out of mind ... even for journalists who get paid to focus on the faces of this community.

Things may be changing — and not for the better.

Despite adding programs these past eight years that have morphed the shelter into a comprehensive resource center focusing on the prevention of homelessness, the number of people showing up at Hesed House has grown dramatically. (See story on page 6.) Dowd predicts they may soon have to start “playing God” and, for the first time, turn some away.

If that happens, he says, “We are going to start seeing people on the streets.”

When, he asked, is the last time the Beacon wrote a news story about a homeless man being found frozen?

I checked: In February of 2002, a man was found on the East bank of the Fox River. Two years later, another homeless man was discovered across the street from the old River Street police station. And in January of 2005, a 37-year-old homeless man was found frozen under the Indian Trail Bridge.

There have been no such tragedies since.

Dowd, who took over Hesed House in 2006, says HUD mandates sweeps of cities and towns every other January to search for people living under bridges, along riverbanks or in abandoned buildings. This last sweep, conducted in 2011, resulted in 47 unserved homeless people discovered in Elgin. There were similar jaw-dropping numbers for Peoria and Springfield.

In Aurora, Dowd said, police found just one man on the streets ... living in an outdoor toilet.

“I even knew him,” said the shelter’s director. “I told him, ‘Hey, dude, why aren’t you at Hesed House?’ And he didn’t know why ... but the next day he showed up.”

Those who fill the shelter, including the Transitional Living Center for families, all hail from this community, too. The homeless arriving from other areas, Chicago included, are given a bed and meal for the night, then sent back to wherever they came from, said Dowd. But even trying to keep up with the needs of this community, he added, has turned critical.

Dowd is not sure what can be done. Money is coming in: This year’s Kentucky Derby gala to benefit the shelter grossed $90,000; and another private fundraiser scheduled for November took in $200,000 last year. There’s also volunteers from 80 churches — folks from Aurora’s Faith Lutheran were dishing out mostaccioli on Wednesday night — whose generous hearts help feed the hungry three squares every day, 365 days a year.

Still, it’s not enough. The faces keep coming. Soon, he fears, there will simply be no more room.

Dowd tries to keep himself focused by applying Gandhi’s talisman: To recall the face of poorest and the weakest person you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use. Will that person gain anything by it? Will they be restored to control his or her destiny?

Dowd sees the faces of the poorest and the weakest on a daily basis. Which is why he becomes so emotional when he looks into the future.

“These are not just numbers,” he said of the vulnerable who circle his life. “They are real people.”

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