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Chicago's Hidden Gems: Skokie church offering help to people experiencing homelessness

Hidden Gems: Skokie church offers help, hope to those experiencing homelessness
Hidden Gems: Skokie church offers help, hope to those experiencing homelessness 04:37

SKOKIE, Ill. (CBS) -- A church on Chicago's North Shore is offering help to people experiencing homelessness.

The people receiving help were sleeping on the street before they found Bonnie Kahn Ognisanti, a caring township official. 

She's the impetus behind the day shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness in Niles Township on Chicago's North Shore. 

"I don't think people realize there is poverty here. But we have real poverty," Ognisanti said. 

Ognisanti told CBS 2 even she didn't realize so many people here were experiencing homelessness, until one day about two years ago.

"A gentleman walked into our office. He had six garbage bags full of all of his belongings...I thought that they were donations for our food pantry but it was everything that he owned," she said. "I realized really quickly that he didn't have a space where he could just feel like a human being and get his body clean and wash his clothes and sit down and get a sandwich and rest."

She headed to St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Skokie to talk with the pastor. 

"I thought St. Paul's has a parochial school that's just sitting there, empty that's not being used. They already have showers, lockers, community space and we already have a partnership," Ognisanti said.

That thought and a year's worth of planning resulted in a day-time respite center for people who are experiencing homelessness. It's a place to feel dignity, even when there's nothing else.

"There's a lot of pain that just comes with poverty, but one of the biggest one is lack of choice," Ognisanti said. "You don't have choices where you're going to sleep, what you're going to eat, how you're going to be treated, where you can rest."

She said if you don't have these very simple things, it can exacerbate everything else.

The center serves mostly men and everyone is vetted to ensure safety and success.

Ognisanti said she feels real "kinship and love."  

"I do have a calling to service, I feel a deep desire to raise people up." she said. "The most important piece for me at this time is really helping people feel their humanity."

And humanity means helping.

However, the kitchen center needs help. The oven does not work and neither does the giant fridge. 

Ognisanti believes to fix the kitchen center, they need a grant or donation as costs could reach $5,000.

Fernando is one of the people staying afloat in the center. He says his life would be different witthout the center's assistance. 

"Right now I'd be drunk already and outside in the streets," Fernando said. 

He said it "keeps me clean, sober, happy and learning things that I never experienced in my life."

"I do hear thank you a lot and it's very impactful, but even sometimes when you don't hear the words thank you, I'm still very gratified and grateful to do this work and be in a position where I can help," Ognisanti said. "Honestly, that's reward enough for me."

She said the most important piece for her is helping feel their humanity. 

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