At first glance, First Lutheran Church on the 6700 block of 31st Street, is easily overlooked. There’s not much to it, just a dimly lit sign and an empty parking lot around the corner. It appears to be abandoned, despite the few people sitting on the church steps, talking quietly amongst themselves.
But starting last Saturday First Lutheran Church took on new life as a safe haven for homeless people thanks to an organization called West Suburban PADS.
PADS, or Public Action to Deliver Shelter has offered not only emergency shelter, but also support, housing, employment and prevention since 1992. PADS has 11 shelters throughout the Chicago area. When a previous church stopped opening its doors to PADS, First Lutheran Church stepped in.
At 7 p.m. staff members and volunteers showed up at the church and began setting up. Jim Woodrow, an older man who has been volunteering for five years, started un-stacking the mattress pads and handing them off to the other volunteers. Woodrow and his wife Donna volunteered at a different PADS location in Berwyn until the PADS operation at their church moved to First Lutheran Church.
“We believe in giving back,” Donna Woodrow said. “It’s not just about taking, it’s about giving back too. We’re here for a reason.”
Jim Woodrow said they don’t need to lay out all of them, since there won’t be a lot of people there. The pads are laid in columns and rows on both sides of a wall curtain that divides the large room into two.
“One side for the men, one side for the ladies,” he said.
Allison Wyderski and Danny Schuler, a young couple, put a blanket, sheet, pillow, and pillowcase on each mat and then started setting up chairs next to each of the pads so that the guests had somewhere to put their personal belongings.
At 7:30 p.m. Candace Leitheiser, an AmeriCorps volunteer began her paperwork. Leitheiser, who does outreach casework for PADS, works full time. She splits her 1700 annual hours between the shelter and the support center in Maywood.
“When I saw the position, I said this is what I want to do, I’ll put school off for a year,” Leitheiser said.
She headed to the side doors of the church and began the check-in process. People seeking shelter for the night lined up outside. Then she collected identification, although many of them didn’t have any. Instead, they had orange slips, showing that they had registered with PADS at some point and were in the system. Whether it was a driver’s license, state ID, or simply an orange piece of paper, Leitheiser collected them to make sure that none of the people are on the “banned list” for violence or public drunkenness. Once everyone had been cleared, Leitheiser let everyone in. Luckily for Leitheiser, there were only seven guests that evening, which meant she didn’t have to pull names.
“In the winter, we have to do that every night, we just start pulling names out of a hat, and stop when all the spaces are taken,” Leitheiser said. “When we fill up, we send them to a police station or a hospital, so they have somewhere to sleep.”
Once everyone was in, the guests walked along a row of tables filled with donated items and picked up the essentials for the night- a new pair of socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, and a comb. Once the overnight guests had gotten their essentials, some picked out a pad, set up camp, and waited for dinner while others headed to the showerless bathrooms and cleaned up.
Dinner was prepared by one of several groups of volunteers. Guests sat at the table and thanked Wyderski and Schuler, the young couple, several times as they passed out the food and asked if anyone would like anymore of anything.
“The guests are always very appreciative, everyone is very polite,” Garrett Smith a six year volunteer said.
At 8 p.m. Leitheiser announced the first of two cigarette breaks. Although not all of the guests smoked, many took the opportunity to going outside for some fresh air and friendly conversation. After the smoke break, the guests returned inside and First Lutheran Church grew quiet. It was only 8:15 p.m. when volunteers began turning off some of the lights.
“Usually, the guests just want to go to bed, they know the alarm goes off early, so they try to sleep while they can,” Smith said.
By 9 p.m. five of the six guests sleeping at the shelter had headed to their pads, all except one. John Jones (not his real name) sat alone in the corner of the room, earplugs around his neck, observing his surroundings quietly. Jones has been staying at different PADS locations for the last four weeks.
“I am not a drug addict, or an alcoholic,” Jones said. “I am a product of what this recession has done to people.”
Unlike PADS, other locations have strict regulations about when guests can come and go. Jones, who has a 9 year-old son, says that wasn’t working for him. This is why he feels fortunate to have found an organization like PADS. Although he has to bounce around for location to location, PADS makes it possible for Jones to work and see his son.
“I like PADS,” Jones said. “It’s a blessing to be in a place where you’re being served and respected. It keeps me motivated to do what I need to do. I’m doing what it takes; pride aside to put my life back together. It’s like God said here, here’s a little something to get you through, here’s PADS.”
At around 9:30 p.m. the guests had another cigarette break. This time fewer guests went outside – only Smith and the three smokers. Shortly after they returned, the rest of the lights were turned off. Volunteers Smith, Woodrow and his wife, and a few other volunteers sat on the other side of the room, talking quietly among themselves. They had completed another Saturday night at PADS. Then they waited another hour for their shift to be over and for the 10:30-5:00 a.m. shift to come in.
“Some of the volunteers are regulars, others just show up,” Woodrow said. “Either way, you can’t leave your post until you’re relieved.”