A new beginning: Bridge Communities, a dynamic, grassroots, non-profit organization, is committed to transforming the lives of homeless families in DuPage County, Ill. through partnering with groups within the community.He was particularly moved by the plight of the children.
"That just flew in the face of everything that should be happening to children," he said. After seeing too many homeless children suffering, Milligan decided to make a change.
Joining forces with Bob Wahlgren, a friend and fellow businessman, they rented an apartment for a homeless family. The duo then began raising money to help the family become more self-sufficient.
Their vision started out modestly. At the beginning, Milligan and Wahlgren worked through their local church and ended up supporting six families in the fist six years. As their resources and reputation grew, they raised more money and continued adding more apartments. As other congregations in the Western suburbs of Chicago started hearing about what they were doing, more churches began following in their footsteps.
By the mid-1990s, Milligan and Wahlgren realized they were on to something truly special. Thus was born Bridge Communities. At the time, 15 churches throughout Du-Page County, just outside of Chicago, were hosting homeless families. Milligan and Wahlgren recognized the need for a strong parent organization to grow the program into something that could make a major impact on homelessness.
"We saw a lot of possibility," said Milligan. "We knew if it were really going to be deeply entrenched in the area, we needed to take more of a leadership role."
Making a Diffrrence
The goal of Bridge Communities is to provide transitional housing to achieve its mission of moving homeless families to a greater control of their lives.
"We hesitate to say self-sufficiency because that is hard to get to, but we want to get them to a place where they are more self-sufficient," said Milligan.
Currently, Bridge Communities has about 130 apartments, either through ownership or through rental agreements, and the organization plans to continue growing. The organization works with 44 faith-based program partners and several community partners throughout DuPage County. After Bridge Communities contracts with a program partner, the partner then sponsors one to three apartments, with some of those partnerships spanning a number of years. The partner pays a program partner fee, which covers about half of the total expenses for the family/families it is sponsoring, and Bridge Communities covers the other half.
Bridge Communities acts as the umbrella organization, providing case workers, financial resources and operational business decisions, while the program partners provide volunteers, additional financial assistance and donations such as cars, furniture, clothing and so on.
More than Housing
Bridge Communities is not an emergency housing organization. Rather, families accepted into the Bridge Communities program go through an in-depth admission process that takes six weeks to two months. Families in the program must have children under the age of 18 living with them and the parent must be working. The family must be either homeless or at risk for homelessness.
"We do two to three interviews over a couple of weeks, drug testing, background checks, credit reports. It's a complex process, and it's not an easy process," said Milligan.
When families are accepted, they are matched with an apartment that is as close to where they need to be as possible. They are then matched with a program partner and volunteer mentors who work with the family on a weekly basis for an extended period of time.
"It is truly a program," said Yvonne Naese, CPA, director of operations. "When we are matching clients with housing, we are also looking at what program partner and mentor group will work best with that family. It is amazing how all the pieces really come together."
Families spend two years in the program. "Two years is a good number. It allows them enough time to do something," said Milligan. "We are starting with families that are unstable. This gives us time to help stabilize them."
Mnaaging the Units
In today's economic environment, the organization has found that purchasing existing buildings is more financially feasible than building brand new buildings. In acquiring housing for its clients, location is of the utmost importance.
"We want to be in the safest neighborhoods possible," said Milligan. "A lot of women we work with are fleeing domestic violence, so we want to create a safe environment."
Additionally, the organization prefers to have their units in clusters, allowing the different client families to live by one another.
"Sometimes, if we have, say, three six-flat buildings close together, we will turn one unit into a resource/ communiy center," said Milligan.
The learning resource centers typically have computers for the clients, and they are used to provide tutoring for the children and for various events.
Maintaining the properties in good working order is a must. With new families--all including children--moving into the units every two years, the apartments face plenty of wear and tear. Bridge Communities works closely with the Community Housing Association of DuPage (CHAD), which serves in the property management capacity for the Bridge Communities units to ensure the units are clean and in good working order. CHAD is responsible for the day-to-day management of the buildings, including security, snow plowing, landscaping, pest control and a 24-hour emergency hotline.
"We are committed to providing quality property management services to our client: said Maria Sanchez, ARM, general manager, CHAD Property Management, Inc. "We ensure that the client work orders are met in a timely manner, and we make sure that the owner's property meets decent, safe housing quality standards."
The property managers are equally committed to helping the families get back on their feet.
The way 1 look at managing these properties is ... how can I be an instrument in making the life of the clients and [their] families feel respected and treated with dignity?" said Sanchez. "The biggest reward for me is knowing that a family is not going to be homeless another night, and that Bridge Communities exists to help children have a safe and secure home."
Although CHAD is the property management arm of Bridge Communities, the mentors and case workers play a major role in ensuring the units are in good shape. The mentors or case managers are pro-active when they notice something that needs to be fixed or changed within a client's apartment.
"Our clients prefer to work through their mentor or case worker. So if there are issues, whether the phone isn't working or the stove is broken, the client usually tells the mentor who then tells me. I will then forward issues to the property managers," said Naese.
This type of three-way communication can pose an operational challenge. "There is a lot of coordination involved," she said. "I have to be very precise on what work needs to be done at what property"
Dealing with Turnover
One of the most unique aspects of managing the Bridge Communities properties is dealing with the turnover rates. When one client completes the program after two years, the apartment must be turned over and readied for the next family. In addition to the usual cleaning, painting and carpet cleaning, there are different maintenance issues and surprises that often arise.
"We conduct a unit-needs assessment to determine how quickly we can make ready the unit to ensure that the owner can quickly place a new family," said Sanchez. "We rely on the maintenance staff to keep us informed of the condition of the unit, while they go along conducting their daily work tending to the properties."
Further, Naese meets weekly with case managers and notifies property managers about maintenance requests and other pressing issues. She also constantly works with program partners and potential clients to go through unit availability. "It is a big chess game, and there are a lot of moving parts. We just want to make sure we get the families into these apartments as soon as we can," said Naese.
Life Beyond the Bridge
One of the most important aspects of Bridge Communities is the exit strategy for its clients. "We are really focusing at a strategic level," said Naese. "We're making sure that an exit strategy is in place so [clients] have a place to go."
After completing the program, the future is more promising for many clients. The program is designed to stabilize the families and help them learn how to succeed after they leave the program.
"For the people who successfully complete our program, we have a rate of 95 percent that are able to maintain housing for a long period of time," said Milligan.
Of course, these families may still struggle in the mainstream.
"These families come to us from crisis conditions ... and in two years we move them closer to employment; we stabilize parent-child relationships; and case-by-case, they are ready to move into the main-stream," said John Hayner, CEO of Bridge Communities.
"The mainstream is how we define it," he said. "Mainstream is distant because their incomes are still not high enough that they can afford a $1,300 per month apartment."
In the two years clients are with Bridge Communities, they receive job training. Many come into the program earning about $9 per hour and leave earning $12 to $15 per hour. Yet, a single mother with two children needs about $29 per hour as a sustainable wage, according to Hayner.
"The truth is life is hard," said Milligan "Earning $14/hour is better than $8/hour, but you are still living on the margin at $14. However, they are able to maintain stable housing."
The biggest challenge in the exit strategy is finding affordable housing for the families after the program. The lack of such housing in DuPage County has been a constant struggle. According to Milligan, while wages in DuPage County have declined, rents have actually increased. Bridge Communities works with the DuPage Housing Authority and CHAD, which owns rental apartments with a mission to provide affordable housing to low and moderate income people.
Bridge Communities is also reaching out to the landlord community to seek out affordable housing. "Occasionally, landlords come to us and offer us a subsidized rate," said Hayner. "We don't need to find too many more to have an effective exit strategy. The advantage to the landlord is that they know we are giving them responsible, stable tenants. They may not be well-paid tenants, but they are good tenants with stability, which is valuable."
"We are not as much about sheltering people as we are about changing people's lives," said Milligan. "Our goal is that when a family leaves us, they have the tools necessary to maintain themselves without going back for help from another agency."
In the late 1980s, businessman Mark Milligan volunteered at a short-term homeless shelter:
[PICTURED] BRIDGE COMMUNITIES RESIDENTS, PASCAL AND LYDIE, WITH THEIR CHILDREN, JOYCE AND GODSON, FLED WESTERN AFRICA IN 2008 TO COME TO GLEN ELLYN, ILL., WHERE BRIDGE COMMUNITIES HELPED SECURE THEIR HOME AND FUTURE.
BY Diana Mirel Photographed By Neil Gates
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