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Thursday, March 10, 2005 02:37 am

Last days of the shelter


At 4 a.m. in the homeless shelter, we make the notation “Quiet” in the logbook, though it hardly is. There is a racket of snoring in the basement of the Contact Ministries building, but it’s a good sound. Some 40 troubled souls are stretched out on the bunks here. Some are on medicines; some are on drugs; some hear voices. All are safe, warm, and at peace, if only for the moment.

At 5 we put on the big urn of coffee, hoping that the smell will stir some awake. By 6 the morning rustle is in earnest, and the banter takes aim at Larry, who’s in charge at the desk. For much of the night Larry has been grousing that the storeroom was locked and he wasn’t given a key. “Then why should we even listen to you, Larry, if you’re not big enough to get a key?” one client calls out. “You ain’t nobody. You don’t even have a key.” Larry ignores the taunts and tells everyone to get moving if they want any breakfast. There are few takers for this morning’s menu of Pop-Tarts or peanut butter on toast. One of the clients remarks that the shelter will soon close until next winter. “This party’s almost over,” he says. He asks the volunteers on duty: “What are you guys going to do with your time when you can’t come here and stay up all night with us?”

In many ways the Springfield Overflow Shelter has been a remarkable success. A cooperative effort among existing homelessness agencies to ensure that nobody would be forced to sleep in the cold between Nov. 1 and March 31, the shelter was put together on a shoestring and staffed with volunteers. It has been a true community effort, with 20 different faith-based and community organizations providing volunteers, food, and cash. More than 200 different volunteers staffed the shelter from 6:30 p.m.-7 a.m. seven days a week. “I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised and happy I am that this thing came together,” says Rita Tarr, executive director of Contact Ministries, who has worked on the program with the Salvation Army, Helping Hands, the SARA Center, and Fifth Street Renaissance.

Since soon after the shelter opened, it has been full nearly every night, serving 42 people a night. Some 243 different people have stayed there, some for weeks at a time, so the temporary shelter has definitely met a need. But that is also a problem: Where do all of these people go after the shelter closes on March 31?

“We’re trying to get them into other programs and places,” Tarr says. The agencies involved are working with the clients to help them find jobs and housing. Some rent assistance is available, but the person has to have at least some income to get into permanent housing. Many of the homeless can’t get a job because they can’t pass a criminal-background check. “We need to try to give some of these people a second chance,” Tarr pleads to potential employers. “My philosophy is, they’ve already served their time.”

Warm weather is coming, the shelter is closing, and poverty remains. President George W. Bush pledged to end homelessness in the next 10 years, then sent Congress a budget recommending the largest housing-program cuts in history. Springfield has successfully met a short-term need, but what will it do for the long haul? The answers aren’t clear, but at least now there are more people looking for answers. Many of the 200 SOS volunteers met homeless people up close for the first time when they worked at the shelter, so now they have faces and names for Springfield’s poor. These volunteers will be needed as a core group of advocates for their new friends over the next few uncertain months.

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