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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 02:32 pm

Cold Comfort

The city claims that a solution is on the way - but Springfield's homeless again must make the best of things as temperatures plummet

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Empathy is long since lost” — or so it appears in Springfield, according to Marlene Moore.

I meet Moore at the Helping Hands of Springfield, where she is a volunteer and the voice of authority at the intake desk, 5 p.m.-midnight every Friday.

Her frustration over the city leadership’s lack of action or interest in addressing Springfield’s homelessness problem is abundantly evident.

“They [homeless] are good for the politicians and the politics in this town,” she says. “It gives them something to talk about.”

“The mayor, the City Council, and the powers that run the city get together, conjure up grand ideas with big words, and throw money to study the problem. They then publish it in the newspaper and pat themselves on the back about how they are solving homelessness.”

Moore refers specifically to Mayor Tim Davlin’s “10-Year Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” — a plan, she says, whose recommendations have “yet to see the light of day.”

“Why do you need 10 years to address a problem that needs immediate remedy?” asks Moore. “Winter comes every year — it’s not an anomaly. They freeze yearly, not once in a decade.”

Moore says that homelessness has always existed in the capital city, and, after long years of denial, many do not concern themselves with the “faceless few.”

“I have heard ‘I am not aware’ so many times, I am convinced the elected officials go to a special school just to learn that phrase,” she says. “How can you not see — unless you are selectively blind to the problem?”

Moore has no reservations about voicing her disgust over the lack of effort to end the plight of the homeless.

Earlier this year she was introduced to “the realities of street life” while completing her internship in social work through the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Moore’s time at Helping Hands fueled her passion, and she’s resigned herself to serving as an outspoken advocate for the homeless.

“I got to know these people at Helping Hands,” says Moore. “I worked with drug addicts, drunks, people with mental-health issues, and those who are just plain down on their luck.”

Moore says that as a society we need social conscience to reach out and help them.

“We are not supposed to sit by and let them freeze to death,” she says, “not kick ’em to the curb and ignore the problem. These are people just like you and me.”

Moore tells me that the homeless are not lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting and rid them of their possessions.

“People are afraid,” she says. “Can you believe that? These people are not out there to steal your coat.”

“Go take a look for yourself,” Moore urges me. “You tell me what you think.”

So I do.

As a newcomer to the area, my sense of direction is questionable at best, but as I seek Springfield’s homeless this evening, I don’t have much trouble finding some.

Along the plaza by Lincoln Library I meet Charlie Smith, 45; Michael Baker, 39; Norman Adkins, 56; Linda Shackelford, 41; and Dustin Shackelford, 17.

Bundled in shabby blankets and sleeping bags, huddled close to their worldly possessions, which are crammed into shopping carts and plastic bags, the group doesn’t seem particularly daunting when approached.

Adkins is first to speak. He refers to himself as the “resident celebrity” for the homeless.

“The newspaper was down here to take my picture,” he says. “They all want to talk to me.”

Adkins says he has been homeless since early February. He claims to have served in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1972 and says that he suffers from mental-health issues stemming from the atrocities he witnessed during his tour.

He also claims that he is not addicted to drugs, but his breath reeks of alcohol.

As he talks about life on the streets, Adkins trembles from time to time and wipes dried blood from his nose. He maintains an intelligible conversation but digresses from time to time.

“People up there look down on us and think we are trash,” says Adkins as he points to the nearby Municipal Center buildings.

The mention of Ward 5 Ald. Joe Bartolomucci, who proposed an ordinance to clear the homeless from downtown, prompts some cursing, but Adkins quickly apologizes for his language.

Adkins says that pride prevents him and his friends from going to the Springfield Overflow Shelter, known as the SOS.
“I know it may seem stupid, but this is our home,” he says, pointing to the plaza sidewalk. “This is where we sleep. I know I am homeless, but I don’t want to be reminded of it every day when I have to pack my things and get out at 7 a.m. and wait to get back in at 6 p.m. at the SOS.”

Baker, the wide-eyed man with a big smile, calls me “ma’am” during our conversation and shakes my hand when I walk up to him.

He says that he’s tried to find work, without success. He talks about two “nice ladies” who drive up to the library daily bearing hot sandwiches and coffee for the homeless.

Adkins says that no one will understand that even the homeless cling to what little self-respect they have in the hopes of one day finding a permanent home.

“We don’t want a temporary place where they can kick us around,” he says. “Help us find a building with apartments, running water, and give us the medical and mental-health care we need. The city can help us if they really want to.”

A mother of two, Shackelford nods in agreement. Up until a month ago, she says, she held a job and was able to support her family.

“I am not picky,” she says. “I would take any job if I have to, but I can’t sleep on the streets all night and wake up looking pretty and go out to find a decent job.”

She says it’s a struggle just to make sure that her two children head to school each morning.

“The boys look out for me,” says Shackelford, referring to the men. “We treat each other like family here. If there is any trouble, it’s not us who are causing it.”

On several occasions, she says, she has awakened to the sound of beer cans being thrown at them from moving cars.

“Kids drive up here in their nice cars and throw rocks and trash at us while we are sleeping,” says Shackelford.

On many other nights, late-night revelers sneak up and steal their measly belongings for fun.

“To answer your question, no, I don’t think most people really give a damn about us,” Shackelford says.

I leave my new acquaintances to head back to the SOS with an invitation to return and a nagging question on my mind:

Are we hardened and unmoved by those less fortunate than us?

Jackie Mullen, at the SOS, has my answer.

“It’s because people perceive the homeless as societal rejects,” she says. “The homeless are supposed to deal with the cards their lives have handed them, because they probably deserve it.”

Mullen is the SOS volunteer coordinator, and for the next five months she will spend her nights in the basement of Contact Ministries, making sure that the homeless have a warm meal and a good night’s rest.

“These are my people,” says Mullen, who was once on the streets herself. “I made some bad choices in my life and ended up on the streets.”
At the SOS on Friday night, about 19 homeless people gather to share a meal provided by a local church group.

Some fall into a restless sleep as the night progresses; others pace the floors, read, or just stare blankly into space.

In a small room where several men gather to talk and watch the late news, I find Randy Cunningham, 42, sitting silently. He appears sober, clean, and willing to talk.

“SOS is a godsend,” he says. “This is my one chance to get off the streets.”

For the past month, Cunningham has spent his days waiting at the Labor Ready office, hoping for a break.

It didn’t take Cunningham — with no money or family and recently divorced — long to find himself homeless.

“Never in a million years I thought I’d end up homeless,” he says. With each word he chokes back tears and avoids eye contact.

“This is difficult for me to talk about,” says Cunningham. “It’s a reality check.”

Despite his luck, he tries to keep the faith.

“This is my chance to bounce back,” he says.

“At SOS, I can get a decent night’s rest, refreshed in the morning to go out to work — and, if I stay at the shelter for the next few months, that will get me enough money for a small apartment or motel so I can get myself off the streets for good.”

What Cunningham is looking for is not a handout, but a head start.

“That’s all I want,” he says.

Mullen says that many homeless people want nothing more than a second chance.

“Most people think, just because we are homeless, that we are bums, lazy and unwilling to help ourselves,” she says.

On the contrary, Mullen says, she spent a year as a resident of Contact Ministries while employed at the city’s public-health department.

“Take a good look at the next waitress you tip, the cashier who takes your money at the gas station, and even the clerk at a local public-aid office — these are the faces of your homeless,” she says.

“And it’s no different than yours.”

Back at Helping Hands, Moore says that a more permanent solution is a must.

“Not much has changed since the Homeless Task Force has been in effect,” she says. There is talk that the SOS shelter will look for a new home next year.

“Here’s an idea,” she offers without much prodding. “How about turning the Prairie Capital Convention Center’s basement into a shelter for the homeless during winter? The place is heated now, and, except for events held there from time to time, it’s empty.”

Is it a possibility?

“Of course not,” Moore retorts. “That would mean we actually have to admit that we have homeless in the city. Until we do that, and take proactive steps to address it, nothing can be done.”

Moore says, “If there is will, there is a way to make anything happen.”

In Springfield, she says, the will is absent.

Manjula Batmanathan of Springfield is a former reporter for the Paris Beacon News. In her most recent story for Illinois Times, she examined the fight over an ethanol plant in Waverly.

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