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'No one chooses to be here'

Those in shelter see drivers' glares

DIXON – Cigarette smokers at Dixon's PADS homeless shelter see drivers glaring at them.

No smoking is allowed in the two-story house on West First Street, so residents light up outside.

But if the public thinks the homeless are buying packs of cigarettes, they'd be wrong.

"We all roll up our cigarettes. It costs about $1 a pack to roll them up," said Margaret Jones, 59. They fund their habits by recycling cans, she said.

"I stand outside and smoke cigarettes," said her daughter, Jessica Bertsche, 31. "People drive past and stare like we are clown folks."

On a recent Friday, the shelter had 21 people, including a few children. Men sleep upstairs, women downstairs. Margaret is one of seven who bunk in a room.

At 1 p.m., the living room and kitchen were bustling. A reporter interviewed residents one by one at a two-person kitchen table. Meanwhile, one person washed dishes. Another used the stove. On TV was "The Jerry Springer Show."

Here are some of the residents' stories:

Shanda Bubolz, 27

By her own admission, Shanda, who had been a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, began hanging out with the wrong crowd. One day, she was in Dixon and ended up in the Lee County Jail. She didn't say how she got there.

After she was released, she went to the PADS shelter.

Shanda has six children – ranging from 5 months to 8 years old. Two have been adopted by others.

On Good Friday, her parents picked her up to see her children, who are in Aurora, where she's from. After the Easter weekend, she planned to return to the shelter.

"I don't know anyone out here," she said.

Paul Weston, 49

He is from Chicago, but he doesn't want to go back. Nor does he want to return to Freeport or Rockford, where he has lived before.

Paul, who has stayed in the shelter for 2 months, said he was a heroin addict, so he wants to stay away from places "that would fuel my addiction."

Paul, who went to business school for 2 years, left Chicago in 1999 and moved to Rockford, where he spent a decade.

His drug problem led him to rehab in Freeport. He got a job there.

Through friends, he met an Amboy woman who became his girlfriend. He moved in with her in Amboy, but couldn't find a job.

Paul was charged with theft in December, according to public records. He said he and his girlfriend stole scrap metal. He became homeless when he and his girlfriend were no longer allowed to have contact. She owned the Amboy house, so he left to the shelter.

Because of the criminal case, he has to remain in Lee County for the next 28 months, he said.

He said he is looking for work and goes to church three times a week.

"I have had just about any job there is," he said.

Charles Ackerson, 33

Charles, who has been at the shelter for a month, said his name has been in the newspaper before.

In April 2012, he was arrested in Dixon on a charge of selling heroin and Oxycodone to an informant. "I had a drug habit," he said.

He said his life spiraled downward after his father lost his job 3 years ago. They lived together in Dixon, but the bank foreclosed on their house.

"I got depressed," he said. "We're alike, but I handled it differently."

Charles has been getting treatment for his addiction. For a couple months starting in November, he lived in a shed at the foreclosed house. He used a kerosene heater and kept his pet rabbit.

"I didn't mind the cold," he said. "I like to live outside."

He has worked for a Sterling restaurant and an area refrigeration company. He called himself "very mechanically inclined."

He said most of the people at the shelter are nice, but "we get a couple of grouches once in a while."

Ronnie Cheatham, 23

Ronnie moved into the shelter 5 months ago. His perspective of the homeless has changed.

"My image of a homeless person was a drunk, someone who does nothing," he said.

Ronnie admits he was wrong.

"Everyone has their own story how they got here. I had nowhere else to go. This was a last resort. No one chooses to be here."

He graduated high school in Arizona and went to trade school, where he was kicked out. (He wouldn't say the reason.)

He moved to Mendota, where he had family, and got a job. In 9 months working there, he received two raises. Then in the middle of the night, he got a call that his brother had been shot in Arizona. He returned right away.

He lived with his parents while his brother recovered. He got a job, but was later fired. He collected unemployment for 9 months. During that time, he became a caretaker for his mother, who went though 30 surgeries in 2 years.

He later moved to Dixon, where he lived with his grandmother. He got a job at a local fast-food restaurant, where he still works. Five months ago, his grandmother needed him to find a new place to stay. He had nowhere to go, so he went to PADS.

What's next?

"I don't know where I'm going for my next step," he said.

Jessica Bertsche, 31

Mold was the problem for Jessica when she, her daughter, and her mother, Margaret Jones, lived in Madison. They couldn't escape it.

They found thick mold in their apartment over windowsills. As a result, she said, her 1-year-old daughter got sick. Then they moved to another apartment in Madison and suffered the same problem. They quit paying rent because of it and got evicted.

Now, she said, they realize they could have gone to the health department to take action to solve the problem.

They went to The Salvation Army shelter and spent some time in their car. Next, they moved to Rochelle, where they had friends.

When they could no longer stay at their friends' house, they looked for a shelter. They found PADS, where they have stayed 2 months.

"This was the only shelter open in the area," Jessica said.

Also at the shelter is Margaret's longtime partner and her 13-year-old son.

Jessica is working to get her GED.

"There are many helpful resources in Dixon," she said.

Margaret Jones, 59

Jessica's mother, Margaret, said her partner got dental work, but couldn't get pain medication. They figured that she was refused because they lived at the shelter and the dentist's office assumed they must be doing drugs.

"We're regular people," she said. "None of us have drug issues. We get a bad rap."

She hopes they can leave the shelter soon. They hope her income tax refund can make that possible.

Looking at her now-2-year-old daughter, Jessica frowned.

"I feel bad," she said. "She has been homeless most of her life. I want to get a job and a place."

Another source for volunteers

DIXON – Looking for volunteers for your civic organization? You might consider those who live at the local homeless shelter.

That's the suggestion of Darla Tarbill, supervisor of the Dixon PADS shelter, which is on West First Street.

"The one thing that everyone at the shelter needs is a job," she said. "A lot of them have sketchy work histories. So if they could establish themselves as volunteers at someplace, they could get references. That would be a definite bonus to help them."

Unlike Sterling's PADS, Dixon's shelter is open all the time. Sterling's shelter shuts down May through September, and it closes during the day in its months of operation.

"Everyone has a story," Tarbill said. "It could be a divorce or a loss of a job. They really aren't that much different from everyday people. It's sad, but this could happen to anyone."

People may stay in the shelter for 6 months, then they are re-evaluated to determine whether they are allowed to stay longer, she said.

"They work with me and develop some type of transitional plan to get back into the community," Tarbill said. "We connect them with area resources that may help them."

Another shelter is in the works, she said, so men could be housed separately from women and children.

Tarbill works only half time, so PADS could use the help of volunteers.

"We are encouraging people to volunteer time to help people get back on their feet," she said.

For more information, call Tarbill at 815-994-3222.


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