Daily Herald
Bridge Communities finds successful formula for helping homeless
By Teresa Schmedding | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 12/28/2009 12:04 AM

Bridge Communities in Glen Ellyn is an organization dedicated to stopping homelessness in the suburbs through education.

The group was founded in 1988 by two businessmen, Mark Milligan and Bob Wahlgren, who noticed an increasing number of homeless people seeking help at their churches.

They started with housing. "The housing is the base to build on, but it's really about change," says Joyce Hothan, executive director.

The organization takes on 30 to 35 families as clients each year. During that time, Bridge provides housing at one of the 14 apartment buildings it owns. In a two-year period, clients receive education, career, financial, psychological, marriage and substance abuse counseling, if needed.

"With housing secure, they can work on other barriers," Hothan says.

Clients are expected to work or go to school while participating in Bridge.

Bridge has seen great success, with more than 90 percent of its clients "graduating" to find employment and housing on their own.

It costs roughly $20,000 a year to sponsor a family. Bridge covers half the cost and a sponsor, typically a church or community organization covers the other half. Bridge currently has 43 sponsor groups, which also provide mentor teams of two or three people who work directly with the families. A Bridge case manager serves as a backup for each team and meets quarterly with mentors and families for goal assessment.

Bridge also has an employment director who works with families on developing a strategy for a better job, whether through training or education.

The education doesn't stop with the parents. Homeless children often fall behind in school, so Bridge's own certified teachers meet with kids twice a week in learning resource centers in Bridge-owned apartment buildings to make sure they are engaged in school.

"We're very interested in not repeating the cycle of poverty in the next generation," Hothan says. "It's one thing to help mom, but we feel it's a wise investment to make sure children also have a strong foundation academically."

The majority of Bridge's clients come from DuPage County and most are single parents with two or three children. The exceptions are victims of domestic violence who need to find a safe place far from home.

Bridge is seeing more requests for help. Last year, it fielded about 1,100 calls related to housing assistance.

"When you're living on the edge, it doesn't take much to push you over that edge," Hothan says. "We are seeing more and more families who were leading middle-class lives and lost their homes through foreclosure."

Bridge also provides clients with cars so they can get to work and take their children to school. "In order to do anything in DuPage County, you need a car," Hothan says. "Our cars aren't auctioned off to raise funds; they go to our families."

Unfortunately, the Cash for Clunkers program has put a dent in donations, making cars one of Bridge's top needs. Bridge also accepts cash and gift card donations. "Small gifts like gas cards and gift cards to discount retailers make a big difference to families long after the holidays are over," Hothan says.

"Bridge is a metaphor ... a bridge from homelessness to hope and stability," Hothan says. "It's also a bridge to connect people who would never have known each other; people from different socioeconomic, religious and racial backgrounds. "

For details or to volunteer or donate, see bridgecommunities.org or call (630) 545-0610.