Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Olive Branch Mission of Chicago

A homeless shelter that has been in service since 1867 says that the problem is worse than ever. The Olive Branch Mission began as a home to feed newly free slaves, but it is now feeding people gone bankrupt from medical bills, laid off from jobs and more.

From the USA Today, writer Judy Keen profiles the work of the mission.

Growing need, shrinking resources and a shift in the face of homelessness from male panhandlers to entire families are challenging Olive Branch in ways rarely seen in its long history, President and CEO David Bates says.

"There are more people in the shadows," he says. "This is our busiest year ever." People who once donated to the mission are now clients. Sometimes mattresses fill the shelter's dining room to accommodate everyone.

Since the recession began, more of the people who make their way to the mission's shelters in a former monastery on the city's South Side were laid off from their jobs, lost homes to foreclosure or were wiped out economically by medical bills.

Patients are dropped off by assisted-care facilities after their insurance benefits are exhausted, Bates says. Eighteen-year-olds who have aged out of foster homes and a growing number of veterans end up here.

The mission, whose founders were members of the Free Methodist Church, provides meals, beds, addiction treatment and employment and housing assistance. It is the city's oldest rescue mission. Only violent individuals and sex offenders are turned away. No one is required to sit through a church service before they eat. "An empty stomach has no ears," says Bates, whose parents were missionaries in Africa.

Cuts in state and city funding have depleted programs that aid the homeless, Bates says, and layoffs and furloughs at social-service agencies have disrupted assistance. The recession also reduced the donations Olive Branch depends on for three-fourths of its annual $2 million budget.

"We're not going to see the effects of the recession being over for a long time," says Hebron Morris Jr., a program coordinator. "I think it will be years."

Charrse Liddell never thought she'd be homeless. Last summer, she was renting an apartment, planning to return to school and looking for an overnight job so she could spend days in classes and caring for her six children. Then the bottom fell out.

"It was the economy," says Liddell, 32. "I couldn't find a job. I was trying my best to keep the rent going and I couldn't. I got evicted." She arrived at the shelter in October. "I let my kids down, let myself down," she says.

Liddell hopes to find a subsidized apartment and a job soon. "I'm on the right track now," she says.

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