Parishes with PADS programs find new ways to help the homeless

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Parishes with PADS programs find new ways to help the homeless

Parishes across the Chicago area had been sheltering homeless people for more than 30 years through PADS when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Faced with suddenly being unable to accommodate overnight guests, many of them pivoted to providing food instead. On Jan. 29, 2021, volunteers from St. Stephen Deacon & Martyr Parish in Tinley Park delivered and served homemade meals those in need and living at the Baymont Hotel in Calumet City through the PADS program. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Reginald Torian, PADS volunteer, Deacon Bob Conlin from St. Stephen Deacon & Martyr Church, Tinley Park, and Dev Bandyopadhyay, also from PADS, unpack homemade meals that will be served to people who are in need and living at the Baymont Hotel in Calumet City. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Bob Conlin, St. Stephen Deacon & Martyr Church, Tinley Park, unpacks meals made by parishioners from his church. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Conlin leads volunteers in prayer before serving dinner. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Bags filled with masks and other toiletries are available for guests to pick up when they get their dinner. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Bob Conlin serves dinner to guest. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Parishes across the Chicago area had been sheltering homeless people for more than 30 years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Faced with suddenly being unable to accommodate overnight guests, many of them pivoted to providing food instead.

Regional organizations that use the Public Action to Deliver Shelter model, or PADS, were for the most part able to get their clients into area hotels and motels that suddenly found themselves with dozens of vacant rooms.

That was the case at South Suburban PADS, which had several Catholic parishes among its partners, providing both shelter on various nights of the week and volunteers.

Infant Jesus of Prague Parish in Flossmore had been a Tuesday night shelter, said Angela Murray, who coordinates the program with fellow parishioner Charlene Jernegan. When the PADS guests moved into hotels, “we looked at each other and said, ‘They’ve still got to eat!’”

Now the parish coordinates meals for about 65 people two or three Tuesdays a month, Murray said, with another church taking on the other Tuesdays. Murray and Jernegan do it with the help of a Google calendar and several other parish organizations and volunteers, so no one has to do it too often, she said.

Doug Kenshol, executive director of South Suburban PADS, said that help from faith communities has been essential.

“It’s really been incredible, the outpouring of support from Catholic congregations as well as Protestant congregations,” Kenshol said. “In a typical year, we might provide, 12,000 to 13,000 nights of shelter and 35,000 to 40,000 meals. This year, we’re on track to more than double that, with about 30,000 nights of shelter and 90,000 meals. A lot of the credit goes to the generosity of those congregations.”

Parishes that are longtime supporters include not only Infant Jesus of Prague but also St. Lawrence O’Toole in Matteson, which used to offer two nights of shelter a week, St. Irenaeus in Park Forest, and St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr in Tinley Park, which helped staff St. Lawrence O’Toole with volunteers. All have parishioners involved in the effort to provide meals now, Kenshol said.

Deacon Robert Conlin of St. Stephen Parish said most of the same volunteers who cooked for the shelter at St. Lawrence O’Toole two or three Fridays a month are still cooking on their regular days.

“There are enough to spread the work out so it doesn’t become onerous,” said Conlin, who has been involved with PADS since he was ordained in 2016. “A lot of them have been doing it a lot longer than me.”

In the northwest suburbs, the story is the same, with several parishes that used to house guests of Journeys: The Road Home now providing food.

At St. Alphonsus Parish in Prospect Heights, which was one of the original partners to the regional PADS organization — now known as Journeys: The Road Home — volunteers work with other, non-Catholic churches to cover meals each Saturday of the month, said coordinator Frank Mattison.

“Instead of each of us preparing meals for 30 people once a week, we decided to divide the month up,” Mattison said. “Each of us is hosting the entire meal for all 100 guests once a month.”

Holy Family Parish in Inverness is providing meals three Sundays a month for the guests who would have stayed at the parish, according to Sue Geegan, the parish’s director of human concerns.

“A lot of the churches have stepped up to be able to assist with meals, even churches that were not hosting PADS,” Geegan said. One of them took over one Sunday a month from Holy Family.

Small groups from Holy Family, two families and one small Christian community, have each taken responsibility for one Sunday a month, assembling and packing meals with food supplied by volunteers. Other volunteers drive the meals to the hotels and drop them off at guests’ doors.

Irene Pezdirtz, part of the small Christian community that makes meals, said it was important to her and other members to continue to help.

“A couple of us would go every Sunday to help [at the PADS shelter],” she said. They would bring a selection of clothing for guests to choosefrom, serve food or fill other roles. “Getting to know the people, you like to help them.”

Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Arlington Heights decided to pursue a different strategy, said Nancy Lynk, one of the parish’s PADS coordinators. Instead of having people make food and assemble meals, the parish asked parishioners to donate money to purchase meals from area restaurants, which are also suffering.

“We decided we would go to local restaurants and help them while we were shut down. It wasn’t going to be the cheapest route, but it would be the most beneficial to the most people,” she said. Parishioners donated thousands of dollars. “We have been doing two to three meals a month since April, with a couple of months off in the summer.”

The parish is also supplying breakfast and lunch for 15 people every other week.

“Journeys provides the list,” Lynk explained. “Something to make sandwiches, fruits or vegetables for the week, a healthy snack, granola bars, cereal, a half-gallon of milk. They try to keep the meals as healthy as possible.”

Volunteers get the list and shop for the groceries for one kit, then drop the bags off at Lynk’s home or the home of her co-coordinator, Molly Wolfe, on Sundays. A volunteer picks up the groceries and delivers them to the clients on Monday mornings.

One of the benefits of the change has been that new volunteers have gotten involved. Many of the people who volunteered for the overnight shelter program were older, she said, and might not be comfortable spending extra time in grocery stores.

“It’s mostly the people who are donating groceries who are new,” she said. “It’s a lot of new volunteers, and younger people who typically are not able to volunteer for PADS because they have families and are busy.”

Many of the volunteers delivering meals to the hotels also are young, she said.

Mattison said his volunteers miss the contact they used to have with guests, when they could spend the evening talking or playing cards or board games.

“The first shift volunteers are encouraged to interact with the guests,” he said. “The general perspective is that we’re not a shelter, we’re inviting guests into our home. Most people consider their church an extension of their home. This has been a trial for us. It is difficult for a lot of people when they were so looking forward to the human interaction. That’s been the biggest cost in all this.”

Conlin agreed.

“You see the same faces week to week and year to year,” he said. “You kind of get to know people.”



  • homelessness
  • parishes
  • covid-19

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