Homeless. The daily struggle.
As the city’s overflow shelter opens for the winter, the homeless ask whether more can be done
Sitting quietly inside an empty McDonald’s, Tracey and Michael Gragg ponder how they’ll find shelter for the night.
Married for 18 years, the Graggs have been homeless for the last two. Michael’s faltering physical condition has heightened the couple’s hardships. Currently he is blind, has hypertension, kidney failure and Stage 5 renal failure. “We’ve been trying ever since then to find somewhere to live, and with my husband’s failing health, it seems like every two weeks we’re going to the hospital,” Gragg said. “At first, it was every six months, now it’s more and more frequently. He’s given up because he’s tired of being homeless and he told me that ‘I want to die. I’m just tired of doing this and I don’t care.’ And that’s what it’s been like. It’s an everyday struggle.”
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless people statewide has declined by nearly 20 percent since 2010. Douglas Yul Holt, president and CEO of Searchlight, a social service agency based in Springfield assisting homeless people, summed up the impact of Springfield’s outreach towards homelessness in the last several years. “The city of Springfield has been so generous and helpful to the social services when we need them,” he said in an interview. “A lot of people come here because the homeless network has made it easy for them to take a step back and get on with their lives. In some cases, you’ll see some guys who just got out of prison in Chicago and they come to Springfield. This is because it’s easier for them to make it and rebuild their lives here than it is up in Chicago.”
However, the budget crisis that crippled the state for two years has worsened matters for the homeless community and service agencies supporting them. Helping Hands of Springfield, located at 1023 E. Washington St., is an organization designed to combat homelessness and help those without a place to live to build lives through providing resources and shelter.
Though the state now has a budget, Holt said that the damage from the two-year state budget impasse made more people homeless. “Just because we have a budget, it does not mean that it will be enough financially to make up for what is already damaged,” he said. “You got people who lost their jobs, there were people who lost their houses, and you had a lot of families that deteriorated as a result. When you add what’s going on around the country with natural disasters, when we do have the national budget, we’re going to have resources pulled away that would’ve gone in our state budget.”
Holt said more men were left without shelter than women. “The biggest problem facing our organization is that there are more men out on the streets. This is not to take anything away from women and children, but we don’t have a shelter in this city that strictly houses single men,” Holt said. “I know a man who came here from Texas after Hurricane Harvey with his wife and three children, and he ended up on the streets while they found shelter. What we’re trying to do is fill the gap to make sure all kinds of homeless people are sheltered.”
In May, the Salvation Army dropped its plans to open a homeless shelter, two years after it discontinued its shelter operation, which had 52 beds for homeless men. Dana Wilford, a local homeless man, was disappointed when the decision was made. “When the Salvation Army decided not to open a shelter, it was tough. But once the Warming Center opens up, that’s a little closure for the people on the street,” Wilford said. “If the shelter could stay open year-round like it is in Chicago, that would be a whole different story, because we’re trying to help people to try and get better, not wallow in their situation. But overall, it’s great just having a place for people to go other than a parking garage, out in the street or sleeping under buildings.”
Helping Hands opened its emergency shelter this week. On Nov. 12, the Overnight Warming Center, formerly named Springfield Overflow Shelter, located at 1015 E. Madison St., began serving as a shelter in addition to Helping Hands. The Overnight Warming Center will be open 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week through March. It provides up to 60 homeless adults with food and shelter every night during the winter season. Approved by Mayor James Langfelder to use the same building as last year, the city of Springfield made updates and repairs to the Warming Center in time for the opening.
Juan Huerta, community relations director for the city of Springfield, is working with Helping Hands to coordinate the Warming Center. With winter on the horizon, Huerta acknowledged the sense of urgency in helping the homeless.
“We are working with a host of other agencies to get the word out to the homeless community. As it stands now, we have room for 60 citizens every night,” Huerta said. “Last year, dealing with bad weather, we only had around 40 or so clients. There were only a few times when we housed 60.”
This time, however, Huerta says that the Warming Center will be better prepared to house more clients. “Since we have the location and the financial resources provided by the city, we’ll be promoting the Warming Center to let people know that there is a place for people to go, stay and have a meal every night,” he said.
Though the Warming Center is offering to house the local homeless community, the Graggs are an exception. On April 17 they filed a lawsuit against Helping Hands before the Sangamon County District Court. According to the complaint, the couple alleged that Helping Hands violated Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities in employment, government facilities and public housing. The former director “refused to let us in there, because of his kidney, and she said they’re not a medical facility,” Gragg said. “They are operating on the basis that, ‘Your kidney is failing.’ My husband is not asking for anyone to dress him, he’s just got to go to dialysis three days a week, that’s it.”
As of Nov. 12, the Graggs’ lawsuit against Helping Hands was dismissed in court. The couple is currently attempting to take the lawsuit to city court as a result. “I researched the laws. I know the laws when it goes down to evictions, and I know enough to know that you can’t do that,” Gragg said.
This is not the first time the Graggs have had an issue with Helping Hands. “The year before, my husband had a certified seeing-eye dog, and when we took him to the shelter, they threw him out because of the guide dog,” Tracey remembered. “By ADA law, they’re required to accept seeing-eye dogs. If you have a no-pet policy, there’s nothing required by law to say you must allow a pet at the shelter, but there’s a difference between a pet and a seeing-eye dog. A seeing-eye dog is trained exclusively to guide a person, whether they’re blind or suffer from mental illness.”
Through the financial assistance of Huerta and the city’s community relations department, the Graggs were able to secure an apartment during the summer. However, the couple says that an unruly landlord and unkempt conditions forced the couple to leave the residence shortly thereafter. Back on the streets, the Graggs quickly faced the prospect of being homeless with potentially tragic consequences. “It got so bad I stopped taking my antidepressants, which eventually caused me to attempt suicide,” Tracey said. “The tranquilizers have a side effect that says that you can attempt suicide on them, and they still gave them to me,” she added. After receiving medical treatment, Tracey said she had another breakdown. “I was taking the medicine prescribed to me and I don’t know how it happened, but I attempted suicide again,” she said. “I don’t remember anything, and ever since then I’ve had brain damage.”
Dana Wilford, who is homeless, believes that the city can do a better job in addressing the needs for the homeless. “This is the capital. The city should have something that can allow us to come in. They have the finances to do it. I can see the buildings that they tore down to make more parking lots,” he said. “There are a lot of places that they can build, but for the buildings that are already there, it can be somewhere that we can reestablish. It may take a take a million dollars to facilitate that, but until it gets done, situations will only get worse.”
Wilford said new shelters could be a place where homeless people can sustain themselves to the point of seeking employment. “We should have a shelter that could house people and get it organized in a way that people are trying to maintain themselves,” he said. “For me, I’m trying to get a job but I’m maintained throughout the year. I’m making my money which means I don’t have to ask nobody for anything.”
Alex Camp is a master’s degree graduate in Public Affairs Reporting from University of Illinois Springfield. He is currently a freelance journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.