Jul 29, 2014
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Homeless in Oak Lawn

For many of the southwest suburbs' homeless, South Suburban PADS is the last stop before the free fall.

If she could rename herself and erase all the mistakes that put her out on the streets, she would call herself Jasmine.

A 70-ish, older white woman carrying a library book, Jasmine has been homeless since December, living in her car by day, sleeping in the South Suburban PADS shelters by night. Except for her slightly soiled clothes rotated from a suitcase to save the cost of laundering, one would hardly guess that Jasmine was homeless. She looks like the nice grandmother next door, the older woman who sits next to you at church.

Jasmine doesn’t want to be interviewed on camera or have her real name used, because she doesn’t want her friends to know that she has been homeless the past three months. She enjoys the game of picking a new name during a smoke break outside the Pilgrim Faith PADS shelter.

“I made some dumb financial moves and it caught up with me,” Jasmine said. “Stupidity is why I’m out here.”

Asked how she spends her days, Jasmine replies that she visits friends during the day. Sometimes she plays Bingo.

“I come here to sleep and have dinner,” she said. “Most of the PADS dinners are really good, although I don’t care for some of them, like meatloaf.”

Like many homeless programs, South Suburban PADS Northern Tier—encompassing Oak Lawn, Burbank, Chicago Ridge, Alsip and Palos—was established by Oak Lawn’s faith community after a homeless man was found frozen to death next to the Oak Lawn Metra tracks 15 years ago.

“People in Oak Lawn were surprised,” said Dr. Michael Montgomery, the site manager for Pilgrim Faith's Thursday night PADS Shelter and an ordained United Church of Christ minister.

“That’s not surprising for the suburbs because we think of homelessness as a city problem,” Montgomery said. “People who are homeless work very hard at not being known that they are homeless. Most homeless people will not beg. They’re trying desperately to have no one else know that they’ve fallen into this condition. By the same token, people who beg aren’t homeless but it’s a way of earning a living.”

More than half of the 60 or so people who show up at the Pilgrim Faith PADS shelter reflect the southwest suburbs’ older, white, ethnic population. Although they no longer have houses or apartments, they remain in Oak Lawn because it’s home, a place they’re familiar with. Other "guests" come from Chicago, because the suburban shelters are perceived as being safer.

Pilgrim Faith accommodates 40 women and children, and some men. The men are bused over to Calvin Christian Reform Church, which takes the overflow. Most come because of the medical clinic, staffed by volunteer medical students and a physician that oversees their work. There is also a substance abuse counselor, a mental health counselor, an optometrist and a podiatrist. All of them are volunteers.

“This liberal church praises God for that conservative church for what they’re able to do,” Montgomery said.

Asked if PADS is enabling people to remain homeless, Montgomery said: “If an epidemic gets loose in this population, we as a society, have a problem.”

With an April 30th deadline looming when the PADS shelters shut down during the summer months, most of those populating the overnight shelters start, in the words of Montgomery “start playing little games.”

“People are starting to look ahead to April when the shelters close and realize it’s back out on the streets again,” Montgomery said. “So there’s tension on both ends. The community they’ve come to feel safe in will be disbanding. They haven’t fixed their problems yet and at the same time, people are getting tired of each other.”

South Suburban PADS offers a summer program designed to help people who are serious about getting off the streets, including substance abuse counseling, job training and fast track housing assistance. In order to do that, Montgomery said, skills and habits essential to survival on the streets must be broken.

“There was a study done that found most people could last six months on the streets with no long-term ill effects,” Montgomery said. “But after that your mechanisms for being safe on the streets will keep you there. No one messes with the crazy lady, but when you start acting crazy there is a thin line between just being crazy.”

PADS rules are simple: Do unto others and you would have them do unto you, love your neighbor, don’t even bother coming if you’re drunk, and don’t come too early.

“We try to help people unlearn the ways of staying alive,” Montgomery said. “We have sometimes silly rules but cheating is a survival mechanism. You have to live by  society’s rules."

A volunteer pops a video into a DVD player, Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s satire comedy about eccentric dog owners competing in a national dog show. Guests peruse a table of reading material—Reader’s Digest, AARP, Time, God’s Answer to Fat.

A man in his early 20s, who Montgomery refers to as “Gentleman X” because he’s just been prescribed with psychotropic drugs, falls asleep in his carrot cake. Before he drops off, he complains of being mugged on Ashland Avenue in Chicago, the muggers stealing his newly purchased 30-day bus pass and smokes.

“But they didn’t take my Xanax,” he said.

Fortunately for Jasmine, the dinner being served at Pilgrim Faith is fried chicken, corn, mashed potatoes and salad. After dinner, standing outside in the churchyard smoking a cigarette, Jasmine ponders her next move after the shelters close in April.

“I hope to God I find something. I didn't think I'd be here this year,” Jasmine said, who has been looking hard for an apartment, but it’s hard when you don’t have a permanent address.  “I’d like to stay in Oak Lawn, Alsip, Chicago Ridge, they all look the same. It's one big community.”

Then Jasmine goes back inside the church, her secret kept hidden another day.

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