In the entrance of Asbury United Methodist Church, guests lined up to sign in. One by one, each guest was given a guide for the day, a volunteer to show them around the church, where local government agencies, colleges and charities were gathered to provide assistance. These guests were the often-ignored homeless men, women and children of Kankakee County.
Project Homeless Connect of Kankakee was an all-day event hosted Wednesday, a chance for homeless people to access resources and for aid groups to get a better sense of the scope of homelessness in the area. Everyone attending the event filled out an anonymous survey that asked them for race, sexual orientation, employment information, veteran’s status and more.
“Those of us serving the homeless population were getting together and seeing we didn’t have a good picture of the population as a whole, so we need data to get some funding to this population,” said Deborah Dodt, director of Asbury Community Outreach Ministries, which organized the event.
A 2016 attempt to count the homeless population proved difficult, and accurate numbers makes groups similar to Project Homeless Connect more likely to get grant funding. Dodt said she hopes the event will take place annually, so agencies have regular access to accurate information. A preliminary January 2017 survey found 100 people were homeless or living in a place unfit for human habitation. Out of those 100, 33 were children. According to the the 2016 annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 4,604 homeless people in Illinois were families with children.
Project Homeless Connect represents a major pooling of resources, with participating groups offering everything from voter registration to free haircuts.
“We have community involvement,” Dodt said. “We have agencies involved, two colleges, two hospitals. It’s phenomenal support for this event, and to get us talking to decide together what our community should be looking like to support this population.”
Dakota Rock, 25, was there to look for assistance for his utility bills.
“Just because people like me are asking help, doesn’t mean we’re bumming off people or we’re lazy,” he said. “We’re just going through a tough time right now. There are certain thing that prevent us from getting ahead, or we’re just looking for help in the right direction.”
“Homelessness is no respecter of persons,” said St. John United Church of Christ Pastor Barbara Lohrbach, who was there as a resource for LBGT homeless people. “It often is not the fault of the person, but a system that keeps them locked in place, for example, a person with mental illness who can’t get their medications.”
With a more organized community to provide assistance, Dodt said she hopes Kankakee and the country at large can embrace a housing first perspective to homelessness, an approach that recommends homeless people be given permanent housing without any initial conditions concerning employment or sobriety.
“When we have people come here in the morning, and they had to walk all night to stay warm and they’re cold and hungry and they can’t make forward-thinking decisions or look for a job,” she said. Once people are stable, groups such as the Asbury Community Outreach Ministries can start a “tough love” approach.
“The only way you can make change in people is by holding them accountable,” she said. “It’s not my goals, it’s theirs.”
Similar to 15 percent of all homeless people, Glen Schultz, 63, is chronically homeless, going through six periods of homelessness throughout the past 16 years during his struggles with substance abuse. At the event, he found a way to get financial aid for a security deposit and first month’s rent.
“There’s only a few people that care,” he said. “If you’ve got your own, you don’t care … that’s America.”