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COD symposium examines the ‘new face of homelessness’

When Jill Markussen wanted to revamp her career a few years ago, she considered the time she spent volunteering at a hospice and nursing homes and knew she wanted to work with people. She wanted to help.

So the former mortgage executive enrolled in the human service program at College of DuPage and, in many respects, was just like any other student learning the skills necessary to pursue a career in the field. What set the single mother of six apart, however was that that she was homeless.

“Initially I was very apprehensive to tell anyone,” said Markussen, whose difficulties began in 2007 when the company where she was employed went out of business. “I struggled a lot. I felt like a failure as a mom when I had to give up the home.”

It was in a reflection piece on homelessness in professor Maryann Krieglstein’s class that Markussen opened up about what it was like being a single, homeless mom living in suburbia. At the time, Markussen and her three younger children were clients of Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit serving homeless families in DuPage County.

“I felt better after telling her,” Markussen said. “(Krieglstein) didn’t treat me any different. I think she respected me more.”

The experience led Markussen, who has since graduated from the Bridge Communities program and is living in a townhouse rented through the organization and working for DuPage County Senior Services, to tell her classmates and others, and later to organize the New Face of Homelessness Symposium in collaboration with staff from both the college and Bridge Communities.

The second annual symposium will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 12 in room 2800 of the Student Resource Center at College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn. The event is free and open to the general public and students as well as those professionals who respond to the needs of homeless families including counselors, government workers and law enforcement among others.

“We’ll have breakout sessions on domestic violence. That is huge,” Markussen said.

Another breakout session will cover homeless youth — the average age of a homeless person in the United States is 9 years old, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless — as well as those who have been shut out of their homes after revealing their sexual orientation. Representatives from the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department, Bridge Communities, Naperville-based nonprofits NCO Youth & Family Services and Youth Outlook will lead the various sessions.

“My focus is on the situational homeless,” Markussen said. “There’s a lot of ignorance because it’s not put out there, it’s not something people want to talk about. We need to create awareness because we can’t fix the problem unless people know the problem exists.”

The symposium will also feature keynote speaker Karen Wells, who will talk about what it was like growing up as one of 10 with a single mother who was forced to move in with her own mother when she was abused.

Wells grew up in poverty but credits her success to her hard-working mother, and later in life, to a guidance counselor, who not only encouraged her to apply for a semester in Japan, but helped by sending money once Wells had made the trip across the Pacific.

“I have been surrounded by really remarkable people,” said the Naperville resident, who is a first-generation college graduate and holds the position of vice president of strategy for McDonald’s. “I know I feel (my family and I) are blessed to be a blessing to others. It is my hope people will be inspired to give back and that we can inspire young people to give back at an earlier age.”

To learn more about the symposium, call 630-942-2103. Registration is required.

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