The experience of living on the streets is one Ray Stewart remembers all too well. Ray first experienced homelessness at age 15 with his family. His family was in and out of homelessness for many years.
Ray found BEDS as an adult and after a year of working through the program, he became housed. He is a regular volunteer at shelter sites and always happy to lend a hand. He also works on the Street Outreach team and uses his past experiences to reach those who have little hope.
"I explain how I was on the street and tell them how I got help to give them hope," he said.
Ray, Robert LeGrand and Ulmon Thomas are key members of our Street Outreach team. They are all former clients who experienced homelessness before they were housed. They know how hard it can be on the streets, and they know how difficult it can be to trust someone who is offering to help. Their collective experiences are invaluable on the Street Outreach team -- and a key reason why the team is successful in convincing those who are reluctant to accept help.
"Trying to get them into shelter is hard," Robert said. "Some of them don't want it."
The trio work with Manager of Emergency Services Mario Avila, Emergency Services Coordinator Zac Catrambone and Outreach Worker Krista Edwards to find people on the streets who are in need of shelter. The Street Outreach team is frequently out in the community, checking parking lots, train stations and places where they have found people before. They hang flyers with BEDS information around town. Sometimes, they head out with police escorts if an area is not safe.
Gerald Vetter, division chief of investigations at the Oak Lawn Police Department, said the Street Outreach team is a valuable addition to the services offered by BEDS. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, those needing shelter could go to one of several rotating emergency overnight shelters operated by BEDS. But those sites closed when the pandemic hit, making it all the more urgent to find those who need help.
"It's been a huge resource for the village and the police department," Vetter said. "Mario doesn't hesitate to get out there. He's really compassionate about what he does and he does his best to get these people (into shelter)."
A Tinley Park police officer, who declined to be identified, echoed those sentiments and said the Street Outreach team helped respond to a stressful situation. The police officer said the communication was fantastic and allowed police to focus on other matters, as the Street Outreach team worked to ensure the person experiencing homelessness was placed in a safe environment.
"Honestly, I cannot appreciate you guys enough," he said. "This (program) should be much more well known."
Prior to the pandemic, those who needed shelter during the day could hang out at local public libraries or fast food restaurants to stay out of the elements. But now those options are closed and the streets are often the only place to go for those who do not have temporary housing. It's one of the reasons Robert, Ulmon and Ray work so hard to convince those they encounter on the streets to accept shelter.
"It's a big change for me," Ulmon said. "I get a chance to help people now."
"There are still limited spots for shelter so sometimes the best you can do is give out a coat or blanket," Zac said. "The waiting list can get long at times."
Zac said the number of people the Street Outreach team reaches in the community when they are out searching for those experiencing homelessness varies. Sometimes, the team will run into two or three people a day. Other times, they find more.
"There's no certain spot people are anymore because of the cold air," Ulmon said. "So you just have to drift with them."
Building trust is a big part of the Street Outreach team's job. The Street Outreach team works hard to build relationships with those they come across on the street. The team tracks the people they run into, especially those who might refuse offers of help. The team comes back to check on hot spots and brings supplies such as food and clothing for those who are not yet ready to accept shelter.
For those who are willing to accept help, Robert said BEDS can offer more than just shelter.
"The program can work if you try and work with us," Zac said.
Click here to read part one of our Street Outreach blog.
"Honestly, I cannot appreciate you guys enough. This (program) should be much more well known."