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Thursday, May 6, 2004 06:25 pm

Packed house

Springfield shelters are strained by demand, as the mayor’s task force on homelessness struggles to get off the ground

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Cover photograph by Benjamin Rondel/Corbis

Every emergency and transitional shelter in Springfield remains filled beyond capacity despite the warm temperatures that signal the onset of spring.

The names of men, women, and children are scribbled on waiting lists to occupy worn mats on cold basement floors rather than spend a restless night outdoors.

Later this month, social service providers will lead a cadre of volunteers across the city, roaming the alleys, parks, and rest stops in an attempt to count the homeless population here.

Last year, 405 people were identified as homeless -- a number that experts say accounts for probably half of the actual homeless population. This year, many predict the number will have increased dramatically.

"It's surprising when you walk the streets downtown in the middle of the night what you'll run into," says Rita Tarr, executive director of Contact Ministries, a transitional shelter at 11th and Adams streets.

But it's not just at night.

"Homelessness is constantly on my mind because it's in my face everyday," says Brad Steller, who for two decades has worked as a ticket agent at the Amtrak station on Third and Washington streets. "This area of downtown is just full of homeless people. It gives Springfield a black eye."

The question of how to handle Springfield's steadily growing homeless population became the center of public debate in January.

That's when 41-year-old Michael Moffett, who had exceeded his stay at the Salvation Army's emergency shelter on North Sixth Street, was sent wandering into the night with little more than the shirt on his back.

Moffett froze to death, and his body was later discovered slumped by the Clear Lake Avenue overpass.

In response, the Illinois Department of Human Services organized a series of emergency meetings that all the city's shelter providers attended.

The aim was to increase communication among shelters and forge a unified plan to avoid turning anyone away during the winter freeze.

"We came together and asked, 'What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again,' " says DHS bureau chief Brenda Hanbury.

But Tarr and other agency leaders had identified the need for more shelter services months before Moffett's death.

Tarr met last summer with Mayor Tim Davlin to press for more city leadership. In August, Davlin announced the first-of-its-kind Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness and named Tarr its chairperson.

According to Tarr, the task force would not only brainstorm more ways to fill the gaps in the city's safety net, it would also help secure state and federal grants that are the bread-and-butter of many local agencies.

Davlin handpicked the group's 25 members, who were supposed to represent a broad spectrum of the community. The list included everyone from Rosalind Bond of Springfield Urban League and the Rev. Silas Johnson of Springfield Ministerial Alliance, to Karen Davis of Union Planters Bank and downtown car dealership owner Geoff Isringhausen. All received official certificates bearing a gold seal and the mayor's signature.

But perhaps more significant were those Davlin did not invite to the table. For instance, representatives from such critical agencies as Salvation Army, Inner City Mission, Fifth Street Renaissance, and Mercy Communities, were left out.

"We all have to work together," says Penny McConnell, executive director of Fifth Street Renaissance, a transitional shelter provider. "The one thing you don't want to do in homeless services is to alienate anybody."

But that's precisely the effect the mayor's task force has had on local agencies.

No one says the task force caused the communication meltdown that led the Salvation Army to release Michael Moffett from its emergency shelter in mid-January. But even Tarr admits the formation of the task force exacerbated an already strained communication system among shelter providers.

"The mayor has no idea there's such a rift among the agencies," says Tarr, adding that she has not spoken to Davlin about the progress of the task force since its inception.

Davlin did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article. Mayoral spokesman Ernie Slottag told Illinois Times, "[Davlin] set the task force up; now it's kind of running itself."

The Mayor's Task Force to End Homelessness is divided into five committees. One committee, which met last week, is working to create a 10-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness, as mandated by the federal government. Other committees focus on funding, promoting public awareness, and lobbying for legislation.

Each committee meets weekly, and the entire task force convenes once per month.

That's five task force meetings every month.

Members admit attendance is often poor, with just one or two people bothering to show up, and there is often a lack of any clear goal or agenda for each meeting.

"All these people are spending all this time on the task force, and what's been accomplished -- other than that they have committees?" asks McConnell.

"I mean, I work in homeless services, and even I don't know what they're doing."

Scott Payne, executive director for 10 years at Inner City Mission, says the task force adds to an already bloated bureaucracy.

"I've seen task forces come and go," says Payne. "They tend to put a Band-Aid on the problem. I don't expect this one to be effective."

Some critics of the task force say its members were chosen for political reasons, and refer to its formation as window dressing for an incoming mayor.

But one thing is clear: those who work in the trenches everyday to provide services to society's neediest were personally offended not to receive invitations from the mayor to join the discussion.

"I don't know how you convene a task force on an issue and not have the key people included," says Calvin Jones, a social worker at Salvation Army. "It was confusing to us, and still is."

Jones and others also say they have too much work to do to spend so much time in meetings. That's a valid contention considering statistics documenting the recent surge in Springfield's homeless population.

Perhaps most dramatic is the number of meals now served at St. John's Breadline, which attracts a mix of homeless and people on fixed incomes for free cafeteria-style meals twice each day.

Last year, the Breadline provided 209,307 meals to the needy. That's a staggering 35 percent increase from a decade ago, according to breadline supervisor Roger Slightom.

Inner City Mission last year turned away some 750 people, mostly women and children, who sought transitional shelter. That's more than double the number of people from just three years ago, according to Payne.

Tarr says Contact Ministries' shelter is over-capacity by four families, and expects a 22 percent increase in clients served compared to just last year.

McConnell of Fifth Street Renaissance says her shelter has consistently had a waiting list of 10 or more people for the last year.

"All the agencies combined don't have the space to adequately shelter the number of homeless here in Springfield," she says.

Rita Tarr wants to make amends. Inside her cluttered office at Contact Ministries on Monday, Tarr, 45, discusses her struggles since being named head of a task force that has driven a wedge among the city's social service providers.

At first, she is defensive: "I had nothing to do with the [task force] list and I had no idea who was even on it," she says. "I didn't do the choosing; I never said, 'I want this person, but not this person.' "

She is self-pitying: "I was made to feel like I was the scapegoat."

And she is worried: "It's pretty scary to know you're heading this thing. If it works, okay, but if it fails, who are they going to look at?"

Some of Tarr's critics complain she is a self-promoter and publicity hound who needs to learn to better delegate responsibilities.

Not only does she head Contact Ministries and chair the task force, but she also serves as co-chair of the Heartland Continuum, which links dozens of social service agencies throughout Sangamon County.

"It's disturbing to me to see [Tarr] chair every committee," says Calvin Jones of Salvation Army. "There's not one individual in town who can speak for all homeless providers."

But more than anything, Tarr says she wants to rise above the pettiness and personality clashes that have dogged her for the last year. She vows to invite all the agencies back to the table to work in a spirit of collaboration not seen since the emergency meetings called after Michael Moffett's death.

"I believe if I had their support with this task force, we could be so much more successful," she says.

"This is not just another meeting to go to."

Next week: Who takes care of Springfield's homeless?

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