Despite occational confilicts, the close quarters force residents at Aurora's Hesed House shelter to learn to live together or be kicked out. After a long night, two residents get ready to leave the shelter for the day. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 12:06PM
On a frigid Wednesday night, Hesed House Executive Director Ryan Dowd and others set out to determine exactly how many homeless people in Aurora are sleeping on the streets.
Dowd said three teams, including a few Aurora police officers, set out at 9 p.m. to visit more than 50 spots where the city’s homeless are known to take refuge — underneath bridges, in abandoned buildings, in wooded areas and parks.
The result? The volunteer team found just one person sleeping on Aurora streets.
In past years, Dowd said teams have found between one and three people.
“As last night proved, there’s virtually nobody that sleeps outside,” Dowd said. “It just tells me that Aurora has substantially changed.”
These one-night counts provide local planners with data they need to understand the number and characteristics of people who are homeless so they can develop a response to confront homelessness.
Had the volunteer teams found 10, 15 or 20 homeless people sleeping on the street, Dowd would have been re-evaluating Hesed’s services first thing Thursday morning, he said.
Counts of street-sleeping homeless people in other cities are traditionally significantly higher than Aurora — 40, 50 or 60 people, he said.
“My opinion is it’s because Hesed House runs a very low-threshold shelter,” Dowd said Thursday. “We can accommodate almost anybody.”
To stay at Hesed House, a homeless person cannot be a registered sex offender, cannot have been previously banned from staying at the shelter and must be from the area. People are most likely permanently banned from the shelter for committing some sort of violent act or predatory drug dealing, Dowd said.
Some other homeless shelters in Illinois operate under stricter rules, Dowd said, which could include Breathalyzer tests at the door, drug tests or permanent eviction for minor infractions.
The difference in homeless philosophy means that those communities end up with a lot of homeless people on the streets, Dowd said.
Dowd said he actually knew the homeless man the volunteers found Thursday night.
“I knew the gentleman and I invited him to Hesed,” Dowd said.
The man told Dowd that if it’s cold enough, he’ll stay at the shelter.
Hesed House is currently serving 160 to 190 people a night, a much more manageable figure compared to the 230 clients they were housing last August, Dowd said. The 160 to 180 range is stable for the shelter; the technical capacity is 145 people.
Last fall, Dowd said that capacity at Hesed House had reached an all-time high, leading staff to open a temporary PADS shelter across River Street from Hesed House. At the time, Dowd thought he might have to turn people away.