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Hinsdale, Illinois |

Published April 7, 2011                                               

HCS Family Services focuses on home front

Hinsdale nonprofit’s homeless prevention program helps give clients
a new lease on life

By Ken Knutson

   Mother of two Noemi was on the verge of eviction last November when she contacted HCS Family Services in Hinsdale.
   Noemi, who we are only identifying by her first name, did not expect much in the way of a personal touch, but found herself as touched by the emotional support she received as she was relieved in obtaining rental assistance.
   “I was really desperate when I went to them. They were very empathetic. I could feel the human part of their feelings toward me,” she said.
   HCS Family Services Executive Director Susan Fritz said the mission of the nonprofit organization’s homeless prevention program is to respond during people’s most dire circumstances.
   “We provide practical assistance to those who are in crisis and on the verge of being evicted from their home because they’re so living on the edge,” she said. “We really have to help keep a roof over their head, food on the table, the utilities paid.”
   The agency is one of six in DuPage County that provides such assistance, serving residents in the county’s southeast region.
   A portion of the program’s funding comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Distribution of that money is restricted on a month-by-month basis for clients who have been issued a five-day eviction notice.
   In 2009, HCS received $150,000 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Fritz said they have more discretion with those funds, but the prolonged economic downturn has drained much of the resources.
   “It’s almost depleted. I think there was a big spike, and we ramped up our programming here to tend to that need,” she said.
   Sheriece Ortiz, housing assistance case manager, said a primary goal is to enroll clients in the year-old Elites program, in which they are paired with case managers to help them break free from government assistance by making healthier lifestyle choices and working toward educational and career goals.
   “We go over budgeting and try to help them become more independent and more self-sufficient,” Ortiz said.
   Fritz told of a 21-year-old Elites client and mother, Christina, who yearned to pass the general educational development test but had been unable to conquer the Constitution section in eight tries.
   Six months ago, she started studying with her case worker, determined to make a better life for her family.
   “Last weekend, we just found out that when she took her full GED test, she passed it,” Fritz said joyfully. “Now she wants to be a nurse. She was so proud when she came in. So she’s a real success story.”
   Unfortunately, those stories are usually the exception to the rule. Ortiz said only about one-third of the up to 50 calls received monthly are from people who qualify for assistance. And it’s considered a mark of distinction for an organization if 5 percent of those who qualify eventually move off of government subsidies.
   Fritz explained that the safety nets in place provide the only security that generations of some families have ever known.
   “Poverty is so complex that it’s hard to get out of that because you’re so reliant on the handout. A mom with 5 children — how (does she) go back to school? What’s going to motivate them to get off Section 8 housing and the subsidies they receive?” she asked.
   Building relationships with people through the agency’s tri-weekly food pantry and periodic mobile food pantry helps build trust with those who might otherwise perceive staff and volunteers as wealthy do-gooders, Fritz said.
   Clients are told that assistance is only as good as the motivation they bring to improve their own situation.
   “We’re here to walk with you, we’re here to help be of support and, you know, there is a better quality of life out there for you. And we can help you every step of the way,” Fritz said.
   HCS officials felt gratified when a client, whose nearly lost everything after a fall from a roof ended his career, proudly walked into their board meeting brandishing his certification as a nursing assistant.
   “It was a matter of us helping him with the food and the housing and the case management program to get him there,” Fritz said. “We celebrate even the smallest things around here.”
   As the first line of intake, Ortiz often bears the brunt of verbal abuse from those who call in the midst of their desperate moments. But she flashed a big smile as she showed off a bead bracelet she received as a thank you from a Spanish-speaking client she took the time to understand.
   “The rewarding part is seeing the happiness that comes from them (when they understand) that it’s going to be OK,” she said.
   Government guidelines spell out strict eligibility criteria, Ortiz said, but she explores every angle to help people obtain assistance.
   “I’m always trying to see how can we make it work for them,” she said.
   Fritz said more recent clients include those laid off after a long career or divorced moms who suddenly have to find a job.
   “It’s someone who all of sudden found themselves in a situation they’re not used to, and they don’t even know where to go for assistance,” Fritz said. “People come to us from all different walks.”
   “It’s good to have someone out there who can help you in a time of need,” Ortiz added.
   As for Noemi, the financial counseling and mentoring she received in the wake of her rental assistance helped lead her to a full-time job, which she starts later this month.  
   “They have helped me a lot,” she said. “There is hope. They gave me a lot of hope.”



    Making a Difference is a yearlong partnership between
The Hinsdalean and HCS Family Services, which works to
empower families and change lives.





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