Daily SouthtownStar: Concerns raised about apartments for homeless

By Phil Kadner, Columnist

Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch wants a meeting with South Suburban PADS leaders to explain who will be housed in a new 77-unit apartment building set to open next month in his city.

“It was my understanding that the building would be providing housing for the homeless in the south suburbs,” Welch said. “Now I’m hearing it will be open to everyone in Cook County and be a type of public housing project.

“I wanted this building in our community. I wanted to help the homeless of this area.

“But I’m not sure this is going to do what we wanted it to do.”

The Wellness Center of Country Club Hills, as the apartment building is called, will indeed be available to everyone on the Cook County Fair Housing Council’s homeless list, according to Mike Wasserberg, executive director of South Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter.

The building was constructed using tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helped to raise more than $15 million.

The Cook County Fair Housing Authority is providing vouchers to help tenants pay their rent in the building.

Every resident will have to undergo a criminal background check.

Each tenant will have to qualify under homeless criteria defined by the federal government.

But government guidelines prohibit discrimination of any sort, including geographical qualifications.

An argument could be made that it’s difficult to define where any homeless person is from since they by definition no longer have a home.

Some of the homeless people wandering the streets of the Southland no doubt lived in Chicago and perhaps even another state at one time.

But I understand Welch’s concerns and share many of them.

Like him, I fought for a permanent building for the homeless to end the shuttling of South Suburban PADS residents from one church basement to another in the winter months.

In a previous column, I referred to the apartment building in Country Club Hills as a shelter, and it is not a shelter in the technical meaning of that word.

It is a permanent supportive living residence, not a temporary residence where dozens of people are forced to share space on a floor.

The Wellness Center is an apartment building with everything you would expect to find in such a facility, and people could live there for years.

Some Country Club Hills aldermen have raised concerns that the apartment building is Section 8 housing.

The vouchers being used have replaced the Section 8 housing program, but Section 8 encompasses a large subset of financially strapped people looking for help paying their rent.

The vouchers for Country Club Hills Wellness Center, as I understand it, are restricted to the homeless and disabled.

Jennifer Hill, executive director for the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, said, “This is not public housing.”

“It is not being operated by the government,” she explained. “It is being run by a not-for-profit agency, and those agencies have done this sort of thing successfully for many years.”

One of Welch’s main concerns, and mine as well, is whether this facility will help the homeless in the Southland.

In addition to the list of homeless people supplied by Cook County, South Suburban PADS is doing site-specific screening for the
Wellness Center, using its client base.

Several sources who deal with the homeless and permanent supportive housing tell me that historically the people who apply for such apartment buildings have lived in the area before or have relatives in the area.

“The homeless want to live in areas they are familiar with,” one source said. “They generally don’t want to travel miles away from their base.”

I have received some calls from South Suburban PADS volunteers upset that they will have to run homeless shelters in churches once more this winter.

“A 77-bed unit was never going to eliminate homelessness in the suburbs,” Wasserberg said.

The fact is that many homeless people don’t want to accommodate themselves to rules and regulations, some are unable to adapt socially to apartment life, and many are only homeless for a few nights a year.

All of them would still need a shelter run by PADS volunteers in faith-based agencies.

While the Wellness Center may not have been the solution I or Welch envisioned, I think it deserves to be given a chance.

Before people panic and assume the worst, let’s see how it operates and if it helps the homeless in the Southland.

I think Welch deserves answers to whatever questions he has, but as he said, “the Wellness Center is now part of our community, no matter what happens.”