Published April 7, 2011
Services focuses on home front
nonprofit’s homeless prevention program helps give
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
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
“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
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
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
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?”
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
“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
“It’s good to have someone
out there who can help you in a time of need,” Ortiz
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
The Hinsdalean and HCS Family Services, which works to
empower families and change lives.