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Bringing resources to the homeless

Guardian Corps of America expanding into Joliet, needs volunteers

Above are items Guardian Corps of America distributes to the homeless. The photo is of founder Tony La Piana's parents, his inspiration.
Above are items Guardian Corps of America distributes to the homeless. The photo is of founder Tony La Piana's parents, his inspiration.

Tony La Piana doesn't live in the Joliet area but he's lately taken an interest in the city's homeless population.

La Piana, of Lombard, who said he'd been involved in homeless activism for about 30 years and then began Guardian Corps of America in 2011, six months after his mother's death, is hoping to stretch his outreach into Joliet.

"I wanted to create an organization and open it up to other people who feel the way I do, and it's doing very well," La Piana said. "We have about 55, 60 volunteers. Many of them are veterans and some of them were homeless and now living in permanent housing."

La Piana said Guardian Corps of America works strictly on a direct outreach basis. Volunteers are thoroughly trained and no one works alone.

"We go under viaducts and we're on the streets," La Piana. "We've been invited to work at churches that are providing overnight shelter. We bring clothing and care packages and distribute it right into the hands of the homeless person."

In addition to basic necessities, which may vary according to the season of the year, the care packages may include coupons without expiration dates to various fast food restaurants.

La Piana said one particular business donates hundreds of coupons to his organization every year. A major grocery chain has donated hundreds of bottles of shampoo, he added.

"We also receive donations from the community who know of our organization," La Piana said.

What did starting Guardian Corps of America have to do with his mother, Edda?

"My mother was homeless during World War II," La Piana said. "War broke out when she was 14 years old, and when she was around 19, the family lost their home. My mother had to move into the school she had attended. It was converted into a shelter for displaced families during the war."

It was in these circumstances that she met La Piana's father, William, an American military police officer, La Piana said.

"So she became an American war bride," La Piana said. "She married my dad and they came to the United States after the war ended. Because she had a lot of experience, she was always involved with helping orphan children and the homeless."

La Piana said his mother involved him in those causes, too.

"My mother would take me by the hand when I was in grade school and we would go to the neighborhoods in Berwyn and knock on the door and ask the people if they had clothing they wanted to donate for the poor," La Piana said.

La Piana said he's seen the state of homelessness grow worse over the years and affect every age group.

"It used to be segregated to the inner cities" La Piana said. "But now you can find it in the suburbs and just about anywhere."

What's contributing to the rise of homelessness? Many factors, La Piana said, including the fact that far too many people are now barely living paycheck to paycheck.

Mental illness, drug addictions, illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, low-paying jobs, wages not keeping up with inflation and a lack of affordable housing contribute to the problem.

La Piana said he meets individuals on the street who "haven't changed their underwear in months."

"It saddens me seeing Americans in this situation," La Piana said. "I talk to them all the time. People who were once very productive citizens, many of them fighting illnesses, are now having a hard time functioning. The sad part is, our society looks down on these people."

La Piana said he met a woman recently with three children who stays in a shelter every night so her children have a meal and a place to sleep.

"And she's working two jobs," La Piana said.

La Piana said one of his volunteers who lives in Joliet asked him to come and see the homeless situation in Joliet. He spent some time working with the homeless in July and August and then made a brief visit in October.

He praised the organizations in Joliet that serve the homeless but feels the amount of people who are homeless in Joliet overwhelms their resources and more help is still needed.

In the Lombard area, someone donated space where Guardian Corps of America can keep supplies. La Piana is hoping someone in the Joliet area will do the same.

"It's going to take a lot more than money to fix it," La Piana said. "But money is going to help."


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