Panel discussion aims to seek solutions for rising homelessness problem

DuPagePads purchased and plans to repurpose the Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove as interim housing for people experiencing homelessness. (Robert Sanchez | Daily Herald)

Homelessness and hunger were prevalent before the pandemic, but in the two years since COVID-19 shocked lives everywhere, those closest to the population in need have seen dramatic changes.

A steep increase in need and a shift in the age of those seeking help are just some of the changes local organizations plan to discuss at the Hunger and Homelessness panel hosted by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

St. Andrews, 1125 Franklin St. in Downers Grove, will begin the event at 7 p.m. Monday. Admission is free.

The event will feature a panel of four with representatives from Shelter for All, Hope’s Front Door, 360 Youth Services and DuPage Pads. The discussion will be moderated by Lisa Snipes of the DuPage County Continuum of Care, and each panelist will give information regarding the organization they represent and how community members can get involved with helping out.

“Homelessness and hunger, it’s a very transient web and no one size fits all for how to serve and help individuals, but no one asks to be homeless or hungry,” said Denise Cantrall, a member at St. Andrews who long has been involved in service work for the homeless and hungry. “I don’t know if there is an answer, but we’re trying to do all that we can.”

Cantrall said St. Andrews was extensively involved in helping the homeless population during COVID-19, and congregation members noticed a growth in need during that time. The idea for this event, she said, is to educate the public on the local homeless and hungry population and how the public can help.

Dave Dornblaser, founder and panelist representing Shelter for All, said he hopes to get the word out about his organization at the event. Shelter for All aims to provide a permanent residence for those struggling with homelessness, and the organization also provides a number of additional services to its residents to help them transition from homelessness to independence.

Residents at Shelter for All are provided with a fully furnished apartment, some funds, necessary food and a mentor. They are taught skills such as budgeting and cleaning. Everyone in the house sees a psychologist to help work through previous trauma and the trauma of being homeless. The organization also provides social events to help create a community within its residents and employees.

“We’re a transformative place of support,” Dornblaser said. “I’d really like to get some awareness of our group; we could use support and awareness. Some people are never going to get over this hump without this kind of support and help.”

Dornblaser said he’s noticed an increase in older faces among the homeless population.

Janelle Robinson, panelist for Hope’s Front Door, said she’s seen an increase in women and children among her organization’s clientele. Hope’s Front Door is often an emergency stop for those in immediate need of financial or medical assistance, and Robinson said she hopes to discuss how the pandemic has increased need locally.

Robinson said things such as an increase in the cost of goods have caused strains on previously stable households, leading many to reach out for assistance, particularly regarding food insecurity. A survey done by Hope’s Front Door showed that many people went into great debt to try to keep their families afloat during lockdowns, Robinson said, and the effects of that debt are still being felt and carried.

“This is going to have long-term ramifications and has the potential to cause instability,” Robinson said. “We want to help people recover – to pay back debt, find employment again, hopefully at the same or similar rate, and regain the savings so many have lost.”

Pads, one of the most known organizations serving the community, underwent a big change during the pandemic, shifting from an emergency roaming shelter program to a new model. Scott Austgen, who will be the panelist for DuPage Pads at the event, said shifting models was always part of the plan, but the pandemic pushed things along.

DuPage Pads has purchased the former Red Roof Inn at 1113 Butterfield Road in Downers Grove and will update and repurpose the building to provide housing to its clients. This way, Austgen said, those in need can have a private space with a shower and they won’t have to move locations with the shelter.

“Typically, we see 150 people on a winter night and 100 in the summer, but last [week] we saw 300 people [in one night.] There is a dramatic increase in need and demand,” Austgen said. “I’d like to share about how we get support because our services rely heavily on financial gifts from the community and volunteering efforts.”