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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 02:11 am

Call for help

Rita Tarr: “We have a higher demand even than what we experienced last winter.”
Photo by Todd Spivak

Springfield's social service providers are bracing themselves for what they predict will be a significant spike in the area's homeless population this winter.

But for some agencies the crisis is already at-hand.

On Monday alone, says Rita Tarr of Contact Ministries, her agency turned away five families -- all single mothers with young children.

Tarr referred the families to Inner City Mission, one of the only other shelters in the city that accepts families. But it, too, was booked.

"I cannot tell you where they went that night," says Tarr. "There was no place for them to go."

This has become an all-too-familiar story for a city that experts estimate to have more than 1,000 homeless people on a given night and fewer than 100 emergency shelter beds.

Local homeless shelters have been filled throughout the summer; many keep long waiting lists of families and individuals seeking help.

Agency leaders attribute the rise in homelessness to a number of factors, including a weak economy.

But increased spending cuts to popular Federal housing assistance programs like Section 8 are expected to overwhelm an already inadequate social service network.

Housing authorities across the country have paled at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's recently announced plan to cut Section 8 by $1.6 billion.

Some Illinois cities, like Alton and Decatur, reportedly have already notified hundreds of people that their rental subsidies have been eliminated, a move that will likely lead to a wave of evictions and a swell in area homeless populations.

"The urgency is real and getting realer everyday," said U.S. Sen Dick Durbin staff assistant Sylvia Gillespie at last Thursday's meeting of the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness.

"These are the biggest cuts recommended to federal housing programs in 30 years," said the meeting's guest speaker, Bob Palmer of Statewide Housing Action Coalition.

In Springfield there are more than 1,700 families who rely on Section 8 and some 800 landlords dispersed throughout the city who accept the housing vouchers, according to Springfield Housing Authority executive director Willis Logan.

Logan complains that the federal government has slashed his annual budget by a dramatic 50 percent in just the last eight years. These cuts, he says, have complicated his efforts to maintain buildings set aside for public housing residents and administer programs to Springfield's neediest.

"The cuts have been prevalent but not as extreme as what they're proposing now," says Logan. "This is going to have a major impact on us, our residents, our landlords, the community."

Logan adds that his office has been inundated with phone calls from local Section 8 participants worried that they may soon find themselves on the streets.

"Thirty-day termination notices are a possibility," he warns. "I wouldn't rule that out."

On Wednesday afternoon Tarr of Contact Ministries invited local media to tour her shelter at 11th and Adams streets, which has been consistently over-capacity for several months.

Contact Ministries has served 12,345 families in the last year, an increase from 9,994 families the previous year, she says.

Tarr has already reduced her staff by two (one employee was laid off, another position was eliminated), but says there are no more corners that she can cut.

Suffering from a lag in individual contributions, she called a press conference to ask for financial help from the surrounding community.

"Right now in August we have a higher demand even than what we experienced last winter," she says. "So what is this winter going to bring?"

To donate money, food, or clothing to Contact Ministries call 753-3939.

For a comprehensive list of Springfield's homeless shelter agencies visit "Limited safety net" at www.illinoistimes.com.

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