Nonprofits address homelessness, poverty in DuPage County

DuPage County has a reputation as one of the wealthier areas in Illinois.

However, nearly 174,000 of its 930,000 residents are classified as "low income."

Nearly 1,400 are homeless.

These numbers come courtesy of Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform and one of the presenters at the "Opening Doors for the Homeless: A Christian Response" seminar held Nov. 9 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Villa Park.

King joined Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois, and John Hayner, CEO of Bridge Communities, in discussing low-income residents and homelessness in the county.

The trio addressed nearly 50 people, including a state representative and two County Board members, about what can be done to help those in need.

"There's [a] cherished myth that if we don't serve them, they'll go back where they belong, which is, in that viewpoint, 'Not here. Anywhere but here,'" King said. "And they're from here. They're ours."

Poverty rates in DuPage County are rising more rapidly than in neighboring Cook County, King said, but resource availability hasn't kept up with the demand. For example, she said, the median income for a family in the area is roughly $91,000 per year. Yet, due to the cost of living and housing options, that amount of money would only allow a family to scrape by.

"Someone who is making a median income is financially stressed in DuPage County," she said. "Which is kind of hard for a lot of us to wrap our brains around."

In addition, the closing of long-term mental health facilities and low-income housing resources have reduced choices for many who are homeless, she said.

"For every 100 renter households that are extremely low income, there are only 28 rental apartments that are affordable and available to them," Palmer said of housing statewide.

There is often a focus on individual reasons for homelessness, he said, such as mental illness, lack of job skills or substance abuse.

"We all know people in our families or elsewhere who have those exact same problems, but they're not homeless," Palmer said.

People with resources such as the support of family and friends, wealth to fall back on and job skills are more equipped to deal with the crises that could lead to homelessness than those who are already poor, according to Palmer.

"You can't compete," he said.

From a policy standpoint, he said, residents should tell their state representatives that they are ready to help those unable to re-enter society on a "level playing field."

Hayner, whose organization, Bridge Communities, houses 80 DuPage County families, said that there was no wrong way to get involved. Occasional visits to soup kitchens and lobbying to politicians were both meaningful.

"Some people just like to put a gesture out to a neighbor or a person in need and make it very private," he said. "Or, do you like the idea of being involved in something much bigger than yourself? Either choice is okay."

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For more information about the three organizations represented at the presentation, visit:
www.dupagefederation.org
www.housingactionil.org
www.bridgecommunities.org