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Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Norwood Park

Portage Park’s Warming Center For Polish Immigrants Reopens Thanks To Community Support

Neighbors raised money to reopen a warming center and buy hot meals for people who rely on the Polish American Association's community room.

The Polish American Association, 3834 N Cicero Ave., has offered social services to immigrants and those experiencing homelessness since 1922.
Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
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PORTAGE PARK — A social services organization for Polish immigrants experiencing homelessness reopened a drop-in warming center last week after raising $4,000.

The money will allow the nonprofit Polish American Association to relaunch its upstairs community room and buy hot meals for its clients during the winter, said Executive Director Kinga Kosmala.

Money raised will also pay an employee to manage the center while it’s occupied during the day. Polish Daily News was first to report on the fundraiser.

“The community has been very generous, and we are beyond grateful,” Kosmala said. “This is for a community of people who most definitely need it.”

For more than 30 years, the association offered a drop-in shelter for its clients, many of whom don’t speak English, are undocumented and have medical issues. It was a place for men to make friends, get support through educational workshops and stay connected to their culture.

But the nonprofit had to scramble to stay afloat after the city’s Department of Family and Support Services didn’t offer it funding in late 2021, forcing the shelter to shut down for a few weeks.

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

Joseph Dutra, a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Support Services, said the city supports 10 daytime drop-in centers across the city, which are picked through a competitive application process every two to three years.

The department “received many competitive proposals for this [housing] program. Unfortunately, the Polish American Association did not meet the scoring 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 funding news was a big blow to the organization, but it’s understandable given that the nonprofit wasn’t able to use most of the city money for its housing program due to the pandemic.

The organization closed for most of 2020, during which time staff dwindled. When the shelter reopened later in the year, it was difficult to find case managers and social workers that could help with the drop-in shelter. Hiring employees was nearly impossible for 2021, too, which meant money from the city grant specifically for the day shelter went unused.

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 longtime supporter of the nonprofit, and Kosmala hopes some of that money can also cover the warming center’s expenses.

The fundraiser has helped get the center back on its feet, but the nonprofit will continue accepting donations through its GoFundMe. Kosmala said the more money raised, the more resources the association can offer to its clients, like Ventra cards, clothing and covering medical charges.

The center is open 10:15 a.m.-1:45 p.m. Monday-Friday. In its first week, several men came by and took advantage of the free food, bathroom and laundry the center offers. Kosmala is working with Montrose Deli to get discounted lunches for clients.

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

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

Zurowski used to experience homelessness and struggled with alcohol abuse. The Polish American Association helped him connect with jobs and substance abuse classes. The organization’s day shelter was like a second home to him, offering him a place to clean up, do laundry and improve his English, he said.

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

Zurowski been sober for 22 years and 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 worried men in need wouldn’t have a chance to succeed. But it’s been uplifting to see the community support and it’s proof the shelter is necessary, he said.

“This shelter had a lot of success because it helps a lot of people who became better,” Zurowski said. “Every month, they got better [through] AA meetings and classes. They got sober, they got married, they got jobs and created new lives. … It really helped me.”

The nonprofit’s GoFundMe is here.

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