Though homelessness is often considered an urban issue, the numbers of homeless in suburban communities of Chicago has been on the rise for several years. For example, in Northwest Suburban Cook County, the homelessness rate has risen by 55 percent over the past two years, with more than 1,850 school students, the easiest homeless population to track, being reported as homeless.
But The Salvation Army’s Des Plaines Corps Community Center outreach volunteers are working to ensure that those living on the streets aren’t invisible. Every Tuesday and Friday for the past two years, Bill and Debbi Middendorp have loaded up their Salvation Army van to drive through Wheeling, Prospect Heights, Des Plaines and Arlington Heights to distribute sandwiches, snacks, water and hygiene items to those sleeping on the streets.
Food for the program is often donated from A & H Vending, and socks and other basic physical needs are provided through school collection drives and donations from area social service agencies and churches.
“Last year we handed out nearly 1,700 meals,” said Debbi. “And sometimes they can stretch the nonperishable foods across three meals or more, which means there were approximately 5,100 times that they were not digging through garbage cans or panhandling.”
If possible, the Middendorps help move people into more stable housing. “Sometimes we’ll take them to our Adult Rehabilitation Center where they are offered shelter and can learn life and work skills in The Salvation Army’s family stores,” said Bill. “We’ve helped a few people reunite with their loved ones and go back home with their families.”
If they’re not able to move people from the streets into stable housing, they try to offer practical help. “We help people fill out the forms to get their state ID or social security cards. It is very rare for a person to be considered for an apartment or a job without proper identification,” said Debbi.
“We’ve helped people get their social security checks. One man, who was 68, had no idea how to get his benefits.”
Even in the shadow of sadness, their work can bring hope and love to others. For example, Bill and Debbi arranged for a memorial service after one of their homeless friends had passed away. “We held it near the forest preserve where he and his friends lived. His mother and brother came to the service. It was healing for them to meet his friends and hear how he had touched their lives,” Debbi remembered. “The service was also so important for that community because they often feel invisible.”
Bill and Debbi see their work with the homeless outreach program as a part of their ministry. Their hearts are dedicated to their work. “We’ve enjoyed getting to know each person and their story,” Debbi said.
“They’re all unique, but often filled with hopelessness, pain and loss. We want to bring them hope and love.”
“It’s nice to see their faces light up when we come to visit them,” Bill added.