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State leaving homeless shelters out in the cold

Debbie Larsexplains her health issues Dr. Andrew Kramer Surgery Group GenevWednesday July 13 2011.  Larswho lives Transitional Living Community

Debbie Larson explains her health issues to Dr. Andrew Kramer at the Surgery Group in Geneva Wednesday, July 13, 2011. Larson, who lives at the Transitional Living Community (TLC) in Aurora, is receiving help with her medical fees from Hesed House and the TLC program. Dr. Kramer, who was found to not be the correct doctor for Larson's illness, refunded the money for Larson's doctors visit. | Marianne Mather~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:43AM

AURORA — Debbie Larson’s life took a drastic turn for the worse a few years ago at a truck stop in southern Iowa. While she showered after a long car ride, her traveling companion made away with all her possessions.

At one stage in her life, she was Debbie the wife, and small-business owner — she and her husband ran a 36-unit motel in North Dakota. But her husband died and she no longer ran the motel.

After talking with the local sheriff’s office and filing charges, a new reality set in. Debbie Larson was now homeless.

For reasons unknown to Debbie, that Iowa sheriff’s department told her that the closest place she would be able to receive help was Aurora, Ill. There were shelters closer to where she was, but she followed the advice of law enforcement and made her way to Illinois’ second largest city.

She bounced back and forth between shelters in Aurora and Elgin a few times, and she spent time on the streets.

Now she has been receiving the services of Hesed House for about four months.

Larson has some health issues blocking her way to finding new employment. She has cancer in her bladder, and has problems with her esophagus. The staff at Hesed House is helping her with her medical issues, and providing counseling to help her eventually get back on her feet.

Without the shelter and the services it provides, her situation would be far more dire.

“If I couldn’t be here I’d be dead right now,” she said.

More than a shelter

The services that Larson takes advantage of are the same services that could be placed into question after the state reduced its funding to homeless shelters by 52 percent. The cut means a drop in state funding from about $130,000 to about $70,000. according to Hesed House Executive Director Ryan Dowd.

Dowd has been at the helm at the Aurora shelter for seven years. That time has been spent enhancing a system designed to help those who are struggling get back on their feet.

It is a system that includes mental health services, job training, substance abuse counseling and other services.

“People think of us as a shelter, but there’s far more activity here,” Dowd said.

The system in place has achieved results. They are now placing people into homes at a quicker rate than people are becoming homeless — something Dowd considers a true measurement of the success of Hesed House.

The sleeping room at the shelter squeezes in 145 beds. But the population of the shelter has spiked as high as 207.

The shelter needs a certain number of employees and volunteers. It needs to maintain the current hours in order to be a viable shelter for the homeless population in the area. It needs to feed the homeless.

Small share of big budget

The savings the state expects from budget cuts affecting homeless shelters will amount to $4.5 million out of a total $32 billion budget. As state budgets go, this is a relatively small amount of money in question, being used to support 90 homeless shelters outside the city of Chicago, Dowd said.

Many of the shelters standing to lose money are talking about shutting their doors for good, or at least cutting back to only providing service in the cold-weather months.

Hesed House will remain open, Dowd said. It’s the level of services that could suffer — services that Larson and countless others find absolutely necessary to their daily existence.

“If I had to pay for that stuff on my own, I’d still be a mess,” Larson said.

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