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Thursday, June 24, 2004 10:14 pm

Competitive edge

More than 70 emergency homeless shelter agencies across Illinois will share state grants totaling $2.4 million.

And the two biggest recipients, according to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office, are Springfield-based Contact Ministries and Fifth Street Renaissance. They competed against nearly 100 other nonprofits for the money.

"We are very pleased, because the more resources we receive, the more services we can deliver," says Rita Tarr, executive director of Contact Ministries, which netted $64,000 -- more than twice the amount it collected last year.

Tarr, who also chairs the Mayor Tim Davlin's Task Force on Homelessness, says she was relieved by the amount of the state grant because individual contributions to her agency have declined dramatically this year. Much of the grant money, she says, will go toward salaries.

Fifth Street Renaissance's $60,000 will go toward operations of its two transitional housing shelters. "We work diligently to respond to every need of our clients," says executive director Penny McConnell.

A half-dozen other Springfield agencies also won grants, which were administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives (P.O.R.A.), which provides shelter to female prostitutes struggling with drug addiction, received $52,500; The Salvation Army, which operates Springfield's largest emergency shelter, $45,000; and Helping Hands, which offers both emergency and transitional shelter, $30,000.

M.E.R.C.Y. Communities, which offers transitional shelter to women with children, received $26,500; Abundant Faith Christian Center, which also shelters women with children, $21,500; and Mini O'Beirne Crisis Nursery, which provides shelter to infants and children, $20,000.

Some of these agencies are now preparing applications for what many deem the most critical, and potentially lucrative, federal grants available to non-profit groups.

The SuperNOFA grants, administered each year by HUD, offer $2.3 billion for dozens of social-service programs nationwide. Roughly half that amount is set aside for homeless shelters.

In Sangamon County, at least five shelter providers will compete for $242,190, according to a HUD spokesman.

The heads of Springfield-based agencies like Contact Ministries, M.E.R.C.Y. Communities, and Youth Service Bureau are racing to beat the July 27 deadline for applications. Winners will be announced by the end of the year.

Additionally, Congress will provide more than $200,000 to one Springfield shelter that offers permanent housing for persons with disabilities. Abundant Faith Ministries won $246,000 last year, and this year will compete for the funding against Fifth Street Renaissance.

"I don't think it's enough money [for all the agencies]," says McConnell of Fifth Street, "but it's what we have to work with."

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