When I noticed that the City Council was preparing to address the problems of homelessness, I stopped by outside St. John’s Breadline after lunch to ask the poor and the homeless, and those who try to help them, whether they had any suggestions for the city’s leaders.
I asked John, a blind man tapping his white cane along the sidewalk en route to SIU for a medical appointment. “If they let them have apartments, they’d be all right,” he said. John has an apartment in a Springfield Housing Authority high-rise, but he has issues with the people who run the building. “They’re trying to kick me out.” What should the City Council do about the homeless? “They need to make it where they could have their own apartments, with their own shower and a TV.”
The temperature was in the high nineties when I talked to Ralph Chamberlain, who watches out for the poor, helping where he can. “Springfield is pitiful when it comes to taking care of the homeless. We don’t have compassion like they used to, when people took care of one another.” The heat has him worried. “We need to have a lot of fan centers set up in town,” he said. “There was a woman at the Breadline today — I’m real concerned about her because she needs a fan. They need to be giving away some fans and having some cool spots.”
Andrea Wake and Jennifer Anderson suggested fixing up abandoned buildings for people to live in rather than tearing them down. They pointed out a nearby building, formerly used for transitional housing for the homeless, that’s about to be demolished.
“I think people should have jobs,” said Frank Luke, a big friendly guy wearing a straw hat. “Spending $500 billion on a war is sick. With that money we could put homeless people to work and pay them properly. People need a place to stay and some work — but they need a union wage.” He encouraged his friend Justina Carr to stop being shy and offer her ideas. “People need a building where they can get out of the heat during the day,” she suggested reluctantly. “Some go in the library, but they’d go someplace else if there was a good place for them to go.” What about sleeping outside the library? “The library is the safest place to sleep because it’s well lighted and the police are right there.”
“The library is not a place to sleep,” said Michael, who isn’t homeless yet but thinks he’s about to be. “That’s why they need another shelter. There’s more people hitting the street every day. It’s getting worse — and all the shelters are full.”
Allen Findly was sitting under a tree outside St. John’s Breadline, trying to figure out how to get to Oregon. He’s been homeless for six years, since his girlfriend kicked him out. He was on his way from the East Coast to Oregon when the police picked him up and brought him to Springfield. “I drink a little bit here and there,” he said. “I have public-intoxication cases pending against me. Alcoholism causes traumatic amnesia, and it causes you to forget stuff like a little warrant.” If I got this right, he was arrested on a six-year-old outstanding warrant for stealing a pack of cigarettes and had to spend 25 days in jail in Peoria, then it took him five days to hitchhike from Peoria back to Springfield to get his stuff.
What should be done with the homeless? “They ought to leave homeless people alone,” Findly said.
Allen John Dunlap isn’t going to say anything against the Springfield authorities because he’s grateful to the cop who brought him to the Breadline after he passed out in the heat. He says he’s sick from the combination of heat and alcohol, and his Social Security disability check was cut off recently because, he says, when he was tested he didn’t convince the shrinks that he is mentally disabled. “I guess I have to get it redone.” He’s been homeless for 15 years, sleeping on the streets rather than shelters because he doesn’t deal well with a lot of people. “Some people think I’m lazy. I am definitely not lazy. I pick up cans every day.”
“The homeless are becoming a large part of the population,” he said. “There are diverse reasons why. You don’t just cast them off or pretend they’re not there. You can’t just lump-sum the whole situation. It’s complicated. It’s diverse. The people sleeping at the library, a lot of them are mentally ill — and if an addiction is involved, you spend all your time trying to satisfy that instead of looking for a job.” I asked Dunlap what he was going to do next. “Get me a beer.” He smiled and winced at the same time, knowing he is pathetic. “Out here on the streets there’s no way I can stay sober.”
I know these ideas are far-fetched, ideas such as getting apartments for the homeless, or jobs. To suggest redirecting money from war to the homeless isn’t realistic, and the idea of providing more shelter space seems simplistic. It takes an alderman to come up with more practical ideas, such as forming a new homelessness commission and funding it with pay-raise money, while debating whether to allow camping downtown. As for the homeless and their ideas, it never hurts to ask.
Contact Fletcher Farrar at firstname.lastname@example.org.