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Thursday, May 13, 2004 04:43 pm

The price of salvation

Captain Deon Oliver, head of The Salvation Army, sits on one of the agency’s 41 emergency shelter beds
Photo by Todd Spivak

Since taking the reins of The Salvation Army last July, Captain Deon Oliver has concluded the agency's shelter fails to meet the needs of the city's swelling homeless population.

Now he's trying to get that message across to city officials in an attempt to secure funding and political support for a new facility that would more than double the capacity of Springfield's oldest and largest emergency shelter provider.

"We need to get out of here," says Oliver, 33, a native of Cape Town, South Africa.

The problem is two-fold: the agency needs more space, and the lack of privacy between women and men -- some of whom are convicted sex offenders -- poses potential safety hazards at the current facility.

"Making do with what we have and identifying the enormity of the need is an issue we struggle with on a daily basis."

Of the dozen or so homeless shelters in Springfield, only two provide emergency shelter: The Salvation Army, which has 41 beds, and Helping Hands, which has 23 beds.

That's a drop in the bucket for a city with a homeless population estimated anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 men, women, and children. (See sidebar for comprehensive listing of Springfield's homeless shelter providers.)

Last Thursday morning, Oliver met with Mayor Tim Davlin to discuss plans for an emergency shelter that could house a minimum of 100.

Neither Oliver nor the mayor's office would disclose possible locations being considered, only that they exist within a one-mile radius of the agency's current site at 510 N. Sixth St.

"I'm confident we'll find a place," says Oliver, who has also met with representatives from the Springfield Housing Authority and plans to discuss the issue with several aldermen in the coming weeks.

Davlin did not respond to interview requests for this article.

Just last month, Oliver reconfigured the agency's shelter, known as the Carpenter's Shop, which is located in a basement and consists of a large open room with rows of beds set inches apart from one another.

Women, who sometimes slept in the main room alongside the men, or in small, adjacent rooms, have since been moved into a storage area behind it.

Still, women have to walk through the main room to access the lone women's bathroom and its single shower stall -- which has no lock.

"The conditions here are not ideal," says Oliver, adding that there are occasional complaints of sexual harassment at the facility. "It has definitely been a concern for us, and is one of the main reasons we are relocating."

The need to divide men from women at the shelter has become more urgent since May 2003, when The Salvation Army contracted with Illinois Department of Corrections to take in ex-offenders on a per diem basis.

The Salvation Army receives $35 a day for each parolee it houses, according to DOC spokesman Sergio Molina. It is one of 61 social service agencies statewide to have such a contract, he says.

Manna House, which operates two local transitional shelters for homeless men, is the only other shelter agency in Sangamon County contracted with DOC.

Since Helping Hands is located within a few hundred feet of Lincoln Magnet School, its emergency shelter cannot legally house convicted sex offenders. That means all such parolees released from DOC with no place to go end up at the Carpenter's Shop.

"There have been no sexual attacks," says Robert Brooks, who helped run the shelter for two years before leaving last month.

In addition to safety concerns, the DOC contract has led some clients to complain -- and some social service leaders to whisper -- that The Salvation Army offers "special privileges" to parolees because they are paid to house them.

Oliver says The Salvation Army has received $40,000 from DOC since signing the contract, which amounts to 25 percent of the shelter's total operating budget.

"If we didn't have a DOC contract," he says, "we would have to seriously reconsider whether we could maintain a new shelter."

Indeed, Oliver says without the funding his agency might even have to revert back to operating as a seasonal shelter only, as it did until two years ago.

But despite the obvious financial benefit, Oliver insists parolees are not given priority when it comes to extending their stays.

"Yes, we depend on the DOC funding; we would hurt very much if we did not have that funding," he says.

"But that's not the determining factor for us."


Next week: Counting the city's homeless.

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