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Offering hope to the homeless at Southwest Chicago PADS

Andre McKinney lost his apartment on short notice earlier this year and was forced to pack up his belongings and live out of his 1993 Cadillac.

To keep their predicament from his teenage daughter, the single parent persuaded a relative to take her in for a couple weeks.

Only once during that period was his daughter out on the street, too, and McKinney says he convinced her they were just “hanging out” for the night.

During their short stretch of homelessness, his daughter never missed a day of school, McKinney told me proudly.

It was McKinney’s devotion to his family that motivated Maurice Morales to work extra hard to find him a new place to live.

Morales is a case manager for Southwest Chicago PADS, a homeless shelter on 71st Street in Marquette Park.

Morales specializes in finding affordable housing for those who are homeless or in danger of becoming so. He can tell you that’s often a very thin line for those living in poverty.

Fourteen years ago, Southwest Chicago PADS was robbed by burglars who made off with most of the shelter’s supplies for feeding and clothing its homeless guests — just as it was preparing to open for the winter season.

That burglary was one of the best things to ever happen to me.

As I explained recently to a group of homeless people gathered for their weekly dinner from the Chicago Help Initiative, the column I wrote about the incident brought me into contact with the shelter’s founder, Sister Therese Del Genio, who in turn made me get acquainted with the homeless people PADS was trying to help.

Through the generosity of Chicago Sun-Times’ readers that holiday season, we more than made the shelter whole. And for me personally, a door was opened to occasionally using this column for what I’d like to think is a greater purpose than playing traffic cop in the world of politics.

In those days, Sister Therese was determined to open an overnight facility to augment the work PADS was doing as a “warming shelter” that feeds and clothes its guests before sending them back out into the night.

But neighbors thwarted her plans for sleeping people overnight. After praying on it, Sister Therese decided to move in another direction: Hiring social workers to help homeless individuals negotiate the many obstacles that leave them in that predicament and to assist those at risk of joining them.

In the years since, Southwest Chicago PADS has not only continued its crucial humanitarian shelter mission but has proven a great resource for fighting homelessness — one person at a time.

It helps, of course, when the homeless person is motivated to help themselves, as was the case with McKinney.

“He’s working two jobs to provide for himself and his family. You don’t find that too often,” said Morales, who hooked McKinney up with a property management company where he had a relationship.

“They took a chance on him,” said Morales, the chance being that McKinney had a “background” — defined in this context as either a criminal record or a prior eviction, both in McKinney’s case.

McKinney, 39, who works as a delivery driver, said he’s grateful for PADS’ help in landing his apartment at 83rd and Ellis.

Morales said he sees his role as helping McKinney and others in his circumstance to “get their foot in their door to plead their case.”

“There’s some negotiating that goes on. There’s some advocacy that goes on,” said Morales, 51, who guesses he’s helped 80 to 90 people find housing in his first year on the job with PADS.

That’s out of maybe 400 people who have come to him for help, which shows how difficult the process can be.

Morales said part of his job is to get his clients “housing ready” by helping them deal with challenges such as mental illness that often play a chicken-or-egg role in resolving homelessness.

“There can be layers and layers of despair and hopelessness,” Morales said.

The typical person looking for Morales’ help is the victim of an apartment building foreclosure in which tenants are often given little or no notice that they must move — and don’t have enough time to locate new housing before being put out on the street, he said.

Some will bounce from couch to couch of family and friends before running out of options and ending up in a shelter or worse.

If they’re lucky, they find Morales before then.

“I don’t turn anybody away. I do give them some sense of hope. I try to meet people where they’re at,” Morales said.

At Southwest Chicago PADS, they can’t help everybody, but they still help whoever they can.