Resource support

Portage Park warming center for Polish immigrants reopens with community support

PORTAGE PARK — A social service organization for homeless Polish immigrants reopened a walk-in warming center last week after raising $4,000.

The money will allow the nonprofit Polish American Association to relaunch its upstairs community hall and buy hot meals for its patrons during the winter, executive director Kinga Kosmala said.

The money raised will also pay for an employee to run the center while it is busy during the day. Polish Daily News was the first to report on the fundraiser.

“The community has been very generous and we are beyond grateful,” Kosmala said. “It’s for a community of people who absolutely need it.”

For more than 30 years, the association has offered refuge to its clients, many of whom do not speak English, are undocumented and have medical problems. It was a place where men could make friends, get support through educational workshops, and stay connected to their culture.

But the nonprofit has had to scramble to stay afloat after the city’s Department of Family and Support Services failed to offer it funding in late 2021, forcing the shelter to close for a few weeks.

The association plans to reapply to a city grant program for the next cycle, but it won’t be until late 2023, Kosmala said. If approved, funding would begin in 2024.

Joseph Dutra, spokesman for the Department of Family and Support Services, said the city supports 10 day care centers across the city, which are selected through a competitive application process every two to three years.

The department “has received many competitive proposals for this [housing] program. Unfortunately, the Polish American Association did not meet the rating threshold for funding,” Dutra said in a statement. “We thank the organization for their service and encourage them to apply for future funding opportunities.”

The organization will still receive city funding for its workforce and domestic violence programs for 2022 and 2023, Dutra said.

Kosmala said the news of the funding was a blow to the organization, but that’s understandable given the nonprofit was unable to use most of the city’s money for its housing program due to the pandemic.

The organization closed for most of 2020, during which time the staff decreased. When the shelter reopened later that year, it was difficult to find case managers and social workers who could help with the shelter. Hiring employees was also nearly impossible for 2021, which meant that city grant money specifically for the day shelter was not being used.

The organization recently received a grant from the Chicago Society of the Polish National Alliance, which provides philanthropic and financial assistance to Polish organizations. The group has been a long-time supporter of the nonprofit, and Kosmala hopes some of that money can also cover the expenses of the warming center.

The fundraiser helped get the center back on its feet, but the nonprofit will continue to accept donations through its GoFundMe. Kosmala said the more money raised, the more resources the charity can provide to its clients, such as Ventra cards, clothing and medical expense coverage.

The center is open from 10:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Monday to Friday. During its first week, several men came and took advantage of the free food, bath and laundry offered by the center. Kosmala works with Montrose Deli to get discounted lunches for customers.

“The men had their lunches, did the laundry, and are really happy that this place still exists,” she said.

Having access to a day shelter within the association was crucial for Jack Zurowski, a longtime volunteer and Polish immigrant who lives nearby.

Zurowski was homeless and struggled with alcohol abuse. The Polish American Association helped him connect with jobs and addiction courses. The organization’s day shelter was like a second home for him, giving him a place to clean up, do laundry and improve his English, he said.

“When I got there, it was impossible to find a job and go anywhere when I was living on the streets,” Zurowski said. “It is close to my heart and gave me a new life after leaving the shelter.”

Zurowski has been sober for 22 years and has worked in maintenance with the Polish American Association. Now retired, he volunteers weekly and helps other men find direction and purpose, just as the nonprofit did for him, he said.

Zurowski was shocked when the center closed and men in need would have no chance of success. But it’s been uplifting to see the support from the community and it’s proof the shelter is needed, he said.

“This shelter has been very successful because it helps a lot of people who have gotten better,” Zurowski said. “Every month they were getting better [through] A.A. meetings and classes. They got sober, they got married, they found jobs and created new lives. … It really helped me.

The nonprofit’s GoFundMe is here.

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