Seeing homeless people on the streets of Chicago is part of city life. Yet few of us know that this is only one type of homeless person. There exists an entirely different category of homeless people right here in DuPage County referred to as the “invisible” homeless.
The “invisible” homeless is usually a single parent who constantly moves between houses of friends and family because they can no longer afford to live in their own homes. Typically, the “invisible” homeless is someone who is recently divorced, a victim of domestic abuse, jobless, or someone suffering from health issues. For them, the future seems bleak when trying to provide a warm place to sleep for their children night after night.
Fortunately, in 1988, Bob Wahlgren and Mark Milligan had seen enough and decided to create Bridge Communities to combat the ever-growing homeless issue in DuPage County. Today, Bridge Communities partners with local churches and neighborhoods to create programs of transitional housing for people in need.
Hinsdale’s Mary McKenzie and her husband Tim joined Bridge Communities in 2001 through Lives in Transition, a mentoring program at Christ Church of Oak Brook. “We got involved because my husband and I were looking for some type of ministry that we could do together,” explains Mary. “We liked the idea of meeting with people once a week and making a big difference in a person’s life. It is a lot of time and energy for one family, but that family really changes over two years.”
While working with the individual families during the two-year program, Bridge Communities acts as a comprehensive support system for the volunteers. They provide everything from employment specialists, social workers, and counselors to academic tutors for the children. “Bridge Community has professionals that will help the families if they need things like writing resumes or preparing for job interviews,” says Mary. “These families really get a broad array of services.”
Each family is also given a caseworker who is well versed in community resources to help the mentors work with transitioning the families back into their local community. “Bridge provides a case manager who works with each mentoring team,” explains Mary. “There are contracts that have to be signed and the case manager takes care of all that.”
Mary and Tim check in with their families weekly and discuss everything from weekly budget to how the children are doing at school. The clients are held responsible for their actions and are expected to work with Tim and Mary in helping themselves. “We expect the clients to work really hard while they are in the program,” says Mary. “They have to save money. They have to pay off debt. They can’t spend any money that’s not totally necessary and they are expected to disclose all their financial information. They are held accountable.”
Indeed, there are clients that haven’t made it through the two-year program because they either choose to leave or cannot adhere to program responsibilities. But Mary focuses on the ones that do make it through the program and are successful in transitioning back to society. “One of the clients that we mentored had three kids and her husband left her with a lot of debt,” says Mary. “She was a hard worker and a smart girl. Over the two years, she paid off all her debt and improved her credit score by 200 points. She even joined our church and became active there. At the end of the two years, she was able to buy a house.”
If one doesn’t want to mentor, there are lots of ways to get involved with Bridge Communities. “You can give financially,” explains Mary. “You can attend Sleep Out Saturday to raise awareness. We are always looking for furniture donation or clothes for our clients.”
Other volunteers help provide families with legal, dental, or medical needs as well. “We get a lot of resources from people in our church as far as dentists, doctors, lawyers if our clients need them. We have a lot of professionals willing to donate their time,” says Mary.
What’s most surprising is how closely the homeless in DuPage County resemble the rest of the community. “Homelessness is very common. Sometimes things just happen and people lose all their money,” explains Mary.
“One time I was talking to a potential client who had kids in the Hinsdale area and one of the boys had gone to Hinsdale Middle School and he was the same age as my son.” After watching her son in a show at Hinsdale Middle School, Mary realized that the homeless boy was also a participant in the show. “When I saw that show,” says Mary, “I realized that I could have been sitting in the audience next to a homeless person. It was a real eye-opener.”
For more information about Bridge Communities, visit bridgecommunities.org.
Sleep Out Saturday
On Saturday, November 1, approximately 1,500 youth and adults got a glimpse of what it might feel like to be homeless by spending the night outside in the cold during the 11th annual Sleep Out Saturday, a fundraiser for housing and other programs for the local homeless. Themed “It’s Time to Do Something,” this year’s event featured approximately 75 outdoor sleep out sites, including backyards and parking lots in which participants will sleep in boxes, tents, and cars.
Since its first event in 2003, more than 10,000 people have slept out to help homeless families, raising more than one million dollars to date. Last year alone, Sleep Out Saturday raised more than $130,000 for Bridge Communities’ transitional housing program, which serves more than 120 families annually. The organization’s services provide approximately two years of housing, life-skills mentoring, financial counseling, employment training, tutoring and an auto repair and donation program. With client families having an even harder time maintaining employment and making ends meet, Bridge Communities continues to increase the services it provides.
For more information about Sleep Out Saturday or to make a donation, visit sleepoutsaturday.org.