Every Friday afternoon the BEDS Street Outreach team gathers to discuss their work and strategy. The team is the first line of defense in our mission to help those who are experiencing homelessness. Several times a week, the team goes out into the community in search of those who are living without shelter to offer help.
It's a tough job. One that can be incredibly rewarding when a person experiencing homelessness accepts help and is able to get into shelter. But one that can be frustrating when offers to help are turned down in the dangerously cold winter weather.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted BEDS and how shelter is offered. Emergency overnight shelters had to be closed after the pandemic started. Now, shelter is offered temporarily in area motels as clients work toward housing.
"I feel bad sometimes because I know what that situation is like," said Robert LeGrand, a former BEDS client who works on the Street Outreach team. "Although now they ain't got a shelter to go to."
Robert spent about a year in shelter before he was housed. He is incredibly grateful to have found BEDS. Now, he works to help others who are experiencing homelessness. He is one of three former clients on the Street Outreach team who use their past experiences to find those who need shelter.
"I got sick and tired of being sick and tired," Robert said. "It's great to have my own place. I thought I'd never see that."
Robert is joined on the Street Outreach team by former clients Ulmon Thomas and Ray Stewart. They work with Manager of Emergency Services Mario Avila, Emergency Services Coordinator Zac Catrambone and Outreach Worker Krista Edwards.
The work our Street Outreach team does is made possible by a Cook County Department of Economic Development grant. BEDS also coordinates with other agencies throughout the region to make sure there is sufficient community coverage.
Several times a week, the team hits the streets to find those who need shelter. They visit train stations. They look under bridges. They go to parking lots and check the woods. Sometimes, they go with a police escort if an area is known to be dangerous.
"We find people everywhere," Zac said.
The team also tracks where they find people experiencing homelessness. Not everyone they find wants help so the team comes back to periodically check on those who refuse shelter. They bring clothes and food. And they try to convince people to accept shelter and help from BEDS.
"I don't understand when they say no," said Ulmon. "If we can get through to them, that's the main thing and it's the way that you approach them."
Gerald Vetter, division chief of investigations at the Oak Lawn Police Department, said the BEDS Street Outreach team has been a great resource for the village and police department because it allows Oak Lawn to focus its police resources on policing.
Vetter said while that Oak Lawn has not necessarily seen an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, being able to connect those who are without shelter with the Street Outreach team has been helpful since rotating emergency overnight shelters have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's a valuable resource that we need here in town," he said.
Find out how our Street Outreach team reaches those they come across on the streets next week for part two of our blog.