Hesed House

General Topics: 

Hesed is a Hebrew word for Kindness. There is a place in my town called Hesed House. It is a place, often of last resort, for the very poorest people in our community. It is the mission of Hesed House to try and help turn things around for the people that knock on their door seeking shelter.

PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) is one of several “ministries” under the umbrella of Hesed House, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation. In turn, there are several ministries under the PADS corporate umbrella. These include case-management, education and advocacy, job coaching, pro-bono legal and medical clinics, a transitional living community program, and the PADS emergency overnight shelter. PADS at Hesed House is the second largest homeless shelter in numbers served in Illinois – second only to the shelter system in the city of Chicago. These programs all work physically under the roof of Hesed House, the former municipal incinerator building in Aurora, Illinois.

Aurora is an older city on the Fox River that Chicagoland has swallowed up. Our population is about 160,000, and is made up of mostly blue-collar, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Hesed House, and especially PADS, serve the poorest people of the Fox Valley area, which includes several, smaller nearby towns. On a typical night, we have from 160 to 200 guests, men, women and children.

Our doors open at 7:00 pm, and we let in the first 90 people who have been waiting outside the door, families first. The staff person (usually two staffers and one case-manager work the evening shift) calls out the letters of the alphabet, and those whose names correspond enter and find a seat at one of the tables in the dining area. Those remaining outside have to wait (unless it’s too cold) until enough people have eaten and moved on to other areas – perhaps to sleep or shower, before they may come in.

Once the first group is seated, and perhaps a volunteer has said a prayer, the families are called to get into line. They check in, pick a spot to sleep (not a bed, but a mattress pad on the floor), and move on to the serving line. There, the volunteers serve up a hot evening meal, on paper plates with plastic dinnerware. After the line has moved along a bit, the staff person begins calling tables randomly, and more of the guests get in line. After everyone has eaten, the guests go about cleaning up, doing laundry, chatting, playing cards and watching TV or a movie. Outside smoke breaks are at 8, 9 and 10:00 pm. Guests can also meet with a case-manager to see if they can get help with a problem preventing their return to a home or an apartment of their own in the community.

The volunteer group, usually a church or pair of churches, provides the meal (for 180-200) and the volunteers. They also provide a breakfast, and sack lunches. These volunteers play important roles. In addition to the five or six on the serving line, there are two at the sign-in table. One volunteer has the key to the guest’s lockers (they do not have their own key), and unlocks them for them when asked. Another volunteer works “The Store” where guests request and receive clean towels, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and the like. The guests may also sign up to use a washer/dryer for a one-hour period (we have five washer/dryers).

Another volunteer works “upstairs” in the men’s sleeping area. Here he checks the men in once again, and makes sure that they find the correct spot – the one they chose downstairs. This can sometimes be a challenge, especially if alcohol is involved. He also makes sure that quiet and order is maintained, and help is summoned when necessary. Bed check is at 10:30, and all guests must be in bed by 11:00 pm. There are 88 beds upstairs, and they are full every night. Some have to sleep in chairs downstairs in the dining area. Single women, and women with children have separate sleeping areas downstairs. Other volunteers work other small jobs throughout the evening. A second smaller group of volunteers comes in at 11:00 or 11:30 pm and keeps things under control until the third shift comes in at 3:00 am to begin making breakfast. All guests are up by 6:00 and out the door by 7:00 am.

As you can see, without a group of volunteers each night, and their providing of the meals and other items, PADS could not operate. Yet there are but a handful of nights throughout the year where there is no group of volunteers. There are some 6,000 volunteers from over 70 churches and other organizations that make PADS work. Some groups work one night every other month, some every month, and some pair up to cover the three shifts and meals.

This is my fourth year as a volunteer working at PADS. I don’t belong to any one group, but work “freelance” with several groups. Sometimes when I work, the group is very short-handed and really needs my help. Other times the group has a lot of help, and I am free to mingle with the guests and just be supportive. Often a guest will just want someone (other than another guest) to talk to. Though I know not to offer advice (not my area of expertise – there are staff and case-managers for that), I can often help by just being interested, or perhaps a joke will do.

We have only a few rules here at Hesed House. No weapons (staff does a random check with a metal detecting wand), no drugs or alcohol, no aggressive or abusive behavior, and an 11:00 pm curfew. Also, once a guest is in, they’re in. If they leave, they’re out for the night. Violating the rules will get a guest put out (by staff) for a night or two. Serious or repeated offences result in longer or permanent banishment. Other than these basic requirements, anyone from our area is welcome to stay.

There are shelters in our area that exclude. Some do criminal background checks. Some use a Breathalyzer at the door. I can certainly understand why they would. We must somehow balance the safety of the volunteers, staff and other guests with the promise of shelter to all in need. Apparently blessed, Hesed House has been successful in this balancing. Though we occasionally have to call the police, I believe we are all safe. I am fortunate to have Hesed House in my town. Hesed House has values – guiding principles that are in line with my own ideals – Theosophical ideals. Let me quote from the preamble to the by-laws of the PADS board of trustees:

In biblical Hebrew hesed describes God’s unconditional, everlasting-love that seeks justice for the least of God’s people. In the Fox Valley of Illinois, hesed refers to a movement of those concerned for the dignity, survival and reclamation of homeless, hungry and hopeless people. It is the aim of PADS to operate in the spirit of hesed – to provide hospitality, as unconditionally as possible to all whose hands stretch out to us. The spirit of hesed commits us to virtues of hospitality, forgiveness and hope in the possibilities for new life.

The following core values were developed by PADS staff directors and are not open to change, EVER.

  • Service without judgment- we seek to serve individuals without judging how they became homeless. We consciously reject the idea that there are deserving and undeserving poor.
  • Ministry based- we profess to be called to serve those less fortunate. We join hands with believers of all faiths to accomplish God’s work.
  • Hospitality focused- we seek to offer individual assistance in a way that affirms their humanity and inherent worth, treating every person like an honored guest.
  • Advocacy for social justice for the poor and homeless- we strive to give voice to those who have been deprived of representation at every level of society, from the federal government to the local food stamp office.
  • Compassionate approach- we strive to live up to the following definition of compassion: The deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it.

I believe that these sorts of values and ideals are exemplary of those that Theosophists should be looking for when seeking out existing organizations with whom to partner. The social ills and associated organizations hoping to assuage them are out there, right in our own hometowns. We just need to examine their values and judge their effectiveness, and choose those where we can best serve in alignment with our own values. 

“The best miracles are dirty. They’re sticky and sweaty and uncouth. The best miracles have rough edges, obtuse angles and misshapen noses…The best miracles come out of action, not thin air. Someone has to work to bring them about”.    Ryan Dowd, Executive Director, Hesed House