Oak Park coalition aims to get everyone housed

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We can end homelessness.

That’s the mission of the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, a 50-member strong group of organizations and individuals working to make homelessness rare, brief and one time in Oak Park. And it’s working, even in the face of a pandemic, which accelerated a "housing first" approach that gets individuals the help they need to remain stably housed.

The coalition came together five years ago. Housing Forward, which works to end homelessness across the western suburbs; the village of Oak Park; and the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township drove the initial efforts, identifying about 200 people experiencing chronic homelessness in Oak Park—in addition to kids in the school district who had no permanent home.

A facilitator was hired, a plan was created and the community organized into five work groups. Those groups worked on affordable housing, strengthening ties among social service providers and raising awareness of what it’s like to experience homelessness. The coalition led, supported, and championed several key policy decisions and initiatives that made progress in Oak Park.

Five strategies have been key to making progress:

  • Advocate for affordable housing.
  • Expand the capacity for housing response for specific populations (i.e., those coming out of the hospital with nowhere to recuperate).
  • Strengthen job and career opportunities.
  • Create and coordinate service intersections (i.e., mental health, gambling and substance addiction, etc.).
  • Strengthen community touchpoints and mobilize for advocacy, including a street outreach team that works directly with those experiencing homelessness.

The coalition got behind a now-village-approved inclusionary zoning ordinance that calls for real estate developers to either provide affordable housing units or a fee in lieu of units.

The coalition also backed The 801, a 37-unit transit-oriented, affordable development on South Oak Park Avenue by The Community Builders, an excellent example of high-quality architecture and a community-driven approach that welcomes a mix of incomes.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Housing Forward overnight shelter shut down. "My heart jumped," says Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward. "We knew that the overnight shelter model we had employed for our 27-year history was going to go away—literally overnight."

Hotels, now emptied of guests, opened doors to people without permanent housing.

Once clients were settled in hotel rooms, a semblance of stability was achieved. "Our clients got to sleep in a bed, and the same bed, for the first time in a long time," says Schueler. "We got to know our clients as individuals and what they really wanted and needed to help them with their lives."

Shortly after, the coalition connected with the owners of Write Inn, a pandemic-shuttered 65-room hotel in Oak Park.

Working with the owner, Housing Forward leased the space, converting it to a new interim housing model, while the coalition supported the effort by working with the community to ensure strong relationships were forged between tenants and neighbors.

The shift from a temporary overnight shelter to a relationship-driven interim housing model is profound. In its first year of operation, 80% of all clients exiting the interim housing model moved into permanent housing. This is a steep increase over the number of clients who could be permanently housed directly through the shelter model.

A more specialized interim housing program addresses those recovering from medical procedures who do not have stable housing in which to recover. In partnership with both MacNeal Hospital and Cook County Health, an entire floor of the former hotel space and another six-unit home are dedicated to those who require the support of both a medical staff and the housing team.

While we have made significant progress, there is still work to be done. More units of affordable housing are needed and mental health services are crucial to ensuring successful permanent housing solutions for many who experience homelessness.

Our model has influenced other communities, including Evanston, which developed its own Coalition to End Homelessness in Evanston. Twenty-five organizations, including government, faith-based communities, social service providers, health care providers and businesses, have assembled to work together to address homelessness—a model built off the Oak Park approach.

While homelessness has not yet been ended in Oak Park, the combination of housing first, strong advocacy and wraparound services has put the community on a path to ending homelessness.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

May 26, 2022 at 06:56PM

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