Homeless in the Suburbs: Finding Shelter

In the first of a three-part series, a homeless man describes his life in and out of PADS.

George Chapp is not self-pitying, yet is often filled with despair.

Though not a Downers Grove resident, the 52-year old can be found in town when a local PADS shelter is open. Chapp, who grew up in Oak Park and Cicero, has been homeless for two months. A recovering alcoholic, Chapp said he's been sober but “bouncing all over for the past two years.”

His sights are now set on turning his life around. “You get yourself in a mess, you need to work your way out of it,” he said. “I’m going to get back on my feet and stay there.”

Wheaton-based Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS), which was founded in 1985, provides overnight housing to the homeless. Area houses of worship furnish space, volunteers and food to provide clients with dinner, breakfast, often a bag lunch, and sleeping space. Some, but not all, locations have showers and laundry facilities.

There is one PADS site in Wheaton—at —which has accommodations on the second Monday of the month from October through April.

Other sites are located in Wheaton, Naperville, Lombard, Clarendon Hills, Carol Stream and other area suburbs. Chapp selects his evening site based on its proximity to the Metra train line.

Chapp was homeless once before. “About six years ago, I had problems with alcoholism,” he said. “I’m not drinking anymore. I’ve been really good. I just can’t anymore, physically or mentally. I can’t do it or I’ll die. I’m kind of devastated. I feel like there’s nowhere to turn and it’s really hard.”

Chapp said he became familiar with PADS during his first stint of homelessness. This time around, he tried different Chicagoland shelters and rehab programs, but perceived those environments to be dangerous. He decided to return to PADS, where “I knew I’d be safe.”

Chapp said that he is a printer by trade. Health issues and his battle with alcoholism cost him his last printing job. “I have a lot of experience. My work ethic is good. I don’t have any felonies or anything like that,” he said.

The economy however, has taken its toll on the job market. “There is a lot of competition out there and they can get you for nothing. I used to make $25 an hour. Now I’d only get $14. That’s what I was making back in the ‘80s but it’s take it or leave it,” he said. 

Even the $14 seems appealing now compared to the $8.50 per hour Chapp recently made washing dishes at a Naperville restaurant. He quit that job because he wasn't getting enough hours; transportation costs were eating up most of his paycheck. 

Chapp said shuffling around between shelter hours—PADS is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.—makes “days a living hell.” Functioning on little sleep, he spends much of his days in Downers Grove at the library. “They leave us alone, but we’re not allowed to sleep. If you sleep, they’ll kick you out,” he said.

He also goes to Caribou Coffee, where he said the staff is very kind. “They see that I’m trying to take care of myself. Someone gave me a $20 gift card. That motivated me. I told them I got a job and they clapped for me. That motivated me,” he said.

Although many of the homeless people seeking shelter at PADS are familiar to him, Chapp said he is by choice a loner. “There are some that I’m afraid of, so I pretend I’m a bad, mean guy. I want them to back off and stay away from me. I don’t hang out with them. I don’t want them around," he said.

Many make no attempt to find jobs, and have been homeless for years, he said. Five or six families regularly frequent the PADS sites he uses. The kids, he said, are “heartbreaking.”

In addition to finding a job with adequate pay, one of Chapp's greatest challenges is transportation. “Metra is expensive," he said. “The biggest thing that hurts me is that I have to go on the street and ask for money just to get a train ticket.”

Chapp said that he’s hoping that by the time the PADS shelters shut down for spring, he’ll be more independent. “I’d like to find a place to rent a room. That’s all I need right now. Where I can shower when I want."

If he is still homeless by the time the shelters stop operating in the spring, Chapp said he’ll join the YMCA so that he’ll have a place to shower, and will sleep in the parks.

Chapp said that his first purchase will be a pre-paid cell phone. “That will be a big deal.  I want to get my resume changed and have a cell phone number on it. Then I’ll start sending my resume out,” he said. "I have some experience with warehousing and storage. But I'll take anything. I can do odd jobs, handyman things, anything."

Although he’s often filled with “complete despair,” Chapp said his belief in God keeps him going. “I believe that God speaks through people. I’ve seen God work, sometimes when I least expect it,” he said.

Recently, he was having a cup of coffee in a restaurant, “full of despair.” He shared his situation with a man at the next table, and then got up to use the washroom. When he returned, he found a $100 bill tucked under his coffee cup. 

During the recent blizzard, Chapp struggled to get to a shelter. A stranger stopped to give him a ride and paid for him to stay in a hotel for two nights, he said. Other acts of kindness from area residents also have given him hope.

“I’m crawling right now, but pretty soon I’m going to be walking,” he said. His ultimate goal is to “set an example that it can work out.  You don’t have to give up hope. There is God and there are good people.”

Chapp believes his situation is one that could happen to almost anyone. “It doesn’t take much,” he said, adding that 20 years ago, he would never have thought homelessness would happen to him.

“Are you kidding? I never dreamed that I’d end up at 52, being homeless. Those weren’t my dreams.”

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