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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 12:58 am

Out of sight

The city wants the homeless to break camp at the library, but where will they go?

Untitled Document Onlookers gather on the east side of Seventh Street, in front of Lincoln Library, waiting for a young bride and her dark-haired groom to emerge from doors of First Presbyterian Church.
An elderly couple smiles at the newlyweds as if seeing themselves as they were long ago, and a pair of teenage girls wearing cardboard tiaras inscribed with the word “Grad” admire the bride’s gown. Four homeless men also watch, albeit less intently. They seem more interested in reaching a consensus as to which brand of chewing tobacco is the best. As soon as the throng of well-wishers showers the bride and groom with rice and the couple climbs into a carriage drawn by a team of black horses, the crowd at the library disperses. Everyone, that is, but the homeless guys, who continue their chaw talk. They have nowhere else to go — this is their home, at least for now.
The library has just closed on a muggy Saturday evening. During the day, the building is a refuge — a warm chair during the winter months and a cool reprieve when the mercury rises. At night, an overhang protects them from the rain.
Although daylight remains, one man has already begun hunkering down for the night by preparing his bed, which consists of several flattened cardboard boxes spread out over the brick outside the northwest entrance. He’ll need all the rest he can get. As of Tuesday at noon — when volunteers, officials from the mayor’s office, police and public works departments filled two pickup truck beds full of belongings — if the homeless still want to camp out at the library, they’ll have to do it with significantly less gear. The little encampment, which has included more than two dozen people at a time, has been a constant reminder of Springfield’s tattered safety net and a lightning rod for some critics who’ve wanted to rid downtown of tourist-unfriendly vagrants.
Last week, as a quick fix, the city announced plans to provide lockers, to give the library’s homeless a place to keep their possessions. The lockers are fastened inside a portable storage unit that is parked outside St. John’s Breadline, on North Fifth Street near downtown. The city is paying $150 per month to rent the unit, which is known as a pod.
Including the lockers, which will be moved to the location of next winter’s overflow shelter, the total cost to taxpayers is less than $3,000, city officials say. It’s a short-term solution, acknowledges Mayor Tim Davlin, but one that’s necessary and more gentle than throwing everything into a Dumpster, he says. “We have to weigh ourselves between trying to be compassionate and trying to take care of the needs and making sure we have a safe environment around our library,” Davlin said last week.
Springfield has been grappling with the problem of homelessness for years. The most recent annual headcount, conducted by local social-service providers seeking to qualify for government funding, found just over 300 people sleeping on Springfield’s streets. Though the overall number was down, the number of chronically homeless — a term that likely describes many of the library residents — jumped by 13 percent.
Two of Davlin’s top lieutenants — community-relations director Sandy Robinson and executive assistant Jim Donelan — joined the survey, helping conduct interviews at the library.
Donelan recalls, “I remember I asked one of the gentlemen, who’s one of the regulars at the library, ‘We know for a fact that there are beds at the SOS [Springfield Overflow Shelter]. Why are you here? Why do you choose to be here?’ And his answer was ‘I’m 45 years old, and I’m not going to have anybody tell me what to do.’
“In other words, he didn’t want to abide by the rules at the SOS shelter, and that was just the prevalent theme throughout that night.”
The city’s response appeared to come in response to the highly publicized attack on a new member of the City Council. Late last month, Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson was attacked by a young homeless man — not a library regular — near the Springfield Police Department’s headquarters. Donelan and Robinson insist that the city was working on its plan to address the library situation before the attack on Simpson took place.
In the city’s discussions with advocates for the homeless and representatives of the homeless population, Donelan and Robinson say, the locker idea was deemed a first step. Long-term, the city believes that a day center and “safe haven” will at least solve the library issue, but, he notes, the question remains “What can we do today or tomorrow at the library?”
As the city sees it, the issue is twofold and complex: On one hand are the folks, each with a unique set of circumstances, who choose to sleep at the library. On the other is their stuff, which as been characterized as everything from an eyesore to a threat to public health and even national security. “We weren’t comfortable with the notion of a shutdown of the complex until we felt like we had a good understanding the circumstances and took our best effort to at least assist individuals who at least wanted assistance,” Robinson says.
Donelan says that the people working on a solution sought “to draw a compassionate line in the sand” to indicate what the city would tolerate at the library plaza. “The mayor wants to see progress and wants to do it in a compassionate way,” Donelan says. “The pod is an interim step.”

Tim Hawker, a short, friendly fellow who likes to talk, is to Camp Lincoln Library what Ernie Slottag is to City Hall. Hawker acts as a spokesman for the other homeless people at the library and as a representative in their dealings with the city. He says that the pods are a good temporary fix that will provide more security than the library denizens have now. “The city’s been working with us. I’ll give them their due,” Hawker says. But he has reservations. Not exactly with the city’s blessing, many of the homeless plan to continue sleeping at the library, which doesn’t close until 9 o’clock on most nights. However, under the agreement with the city that locker users signed, the pod is only accessible each day between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and 4:30 and 5 p.m. Items cannot be left unattended outside. And because library officials have banned bedrolls inside the building, many homeless will have to sit outside for four hours each day — or wander the city hauling their stuff. One man who first learned of the new storage rules and hours when Hawker showed him an official notice on city letterhead, expressed another concern: “Damn, that messes with my work schedule.”
The storage pod is no panacea, everyone agrees. Hawker says that he wanted a day center, or oasis, where people could shower, get a hot meal, and maybe use a computer to submit online job applications. Hawker, who has slept at the library for roughly two years because, he says, no one is interested in hiring him, realizes that homelessness is a multilayered problem. “People want to say it’s all mental illness and all drug abuse, but it’s not just one easy answer,” he says. People are generally kind, Hawker says as he sits beside three large serving trays full of food dropped off overnight by a good Samaritan. Occasionally they’ll get dirty looks or curious stares from people pulling up to drop off payments at City Water, Light & Power.
“We just smile and wave, like, ‘Hey, we’re just like you are — we just don’t have the paycheck,’ ” Hawker says. In February, the weekend U.S. Sen. Barack Obama launched his presidential bid, Hawker says, police officers poked through their belongings, calling the inspection a “homeland-security check.”
Late one night last week, a car full of rowdy young men drove by and pelted the camp with laundry detergent wrapped in tissue.
“We didn’t get a good look. When people throw things at you, you don’t get a description, kind of like when somebody points a gun at you all you see is the gun,” Hawker says.
But no one was injured, nor did the library residents report the incident to police, he says: “Out here, you learn to have pretty thick skin.”

Earlier this spring, Robinson enlisted the help of Rita Tarr, a longtime activist for the homeless, to distribute questionnaires to people at the library to assess their individual needs. “This whole thing started with trying to not group stereotype all the individuals that were around the library. We’ve heard stories that they’re all dealing with mental illness or drug abuse, but they all have different circumstances,” Robinson says. It would have been difficult, he says, to establish a blanket policy without understanding the range of issues facing library dwellers. Robinson says they found that some folks were simply stuck in Springfield and ended up at the library, so they worked with local nonprofits to help them get to places where they had “more viable alternatives.”
“Now certainly there was no effort, in a wholesale sort of manner, just to offer a bunch of bus tickets out of town,” Robinson says, “but when we did case management we were able to make connections with family members or other relatives.”
So far a half-dozen people have received assistance to travel to cities such as Memphis, Tenn.; St. Louis; and Princeton, Ill., as well as Ohio and Texas. Then there the people who worked full-time but slept at the library because they couldn’t scrape together enough money for a deposit on an apartment. Robinson’s office put three or four such people in touch with local housing agencies. Now, Robinson says, “We’re down to the more hardcore individuals,” who, he contends, are basically choosing not to accept better alternatives. “At some point we want a more comprehensive approach,” he says. “At the same time, we can’t sit still and wait for all the pieces of the comprehensive approach to be in place and not do anything in between.”

Although several attempts have been made to get rid the city of the homeless by banning them from the library and outlawing panhandling, the homeless at the library aren’t breaking any laws. Their days there do appear to be numbered, though. The city has hinted that once sufficient resources are in place, the library camp will likely be broken. “If we can provide the appropriate alternative resources, then I don’t think it’s terribly bad to ask them to not to sleep at the library,” says John Kelker, chairman of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness, created in 2004. “Our library was not set up to provide care for the homeless,” Kelker says. “We have to provide our best, and cold bricks outside of the library is not our best.”
Now that the pod’s in place, the next goal is to create a daytime oasis and a nighttime haven where people can sleep under less stringent rules than those at other area shelters. Davlin says his office has been talking to representatives of the Washington Street Mission, which serves coffee and doughnuts until noon, about the possibility of having the mission serve as a day center. Ken Mitchell, the mission’s executive director, says that representatives of the mission talked to the city about expanding the mission’s hours and having social services agencies on-site. There’s a shower at the mission, but Mitchell says it’s not in use because it became “too messy.”
Mitchell says that the mission could open the shower, and possibly build additional ones as well as more restrooms and a laundry facility if it had additional paid staff, some recognizable person with the authority to kick people out when necessary. Right now, Washington Street has five paid employees and 75 to 80 volunteers.
Representatives of social-service organizations all agree that the lockers are a good start. Because many area homeless start their day at the Catholic Charities breadline, the city thought that it would be an ideal place for the pod. The contract, finalized last week, permits the city to house the pod on the Breadline’s property and holds the city responsible for opening, closing, and providing security at the pod.
People would not be allowed to loiter at the Breadline. Catholic Charities executive director Steven Roach says that each party is allowed to terminate the agreement at any time with two weeks’ notice and that the contract will be reevaluated this fall. Catholic Charities is not charging rent, but the city did agree to remove a tree stump for the charity. Roach also says that the temporary storage facility will affect the Breadline’s operation “not one bit.”
Few organizations have been interested in offering day-center services, says Tarr, former director of Contact Ministries. “We’ve always lacked the resources,” says Tarr, but a “day center would be ideal.”
She says that she is often asked by homeless people applying for jobs or benefits, “What do I put for an address? I’m staying at the library. What do I put for a phone number?”
The mayor says that he’s “working diligently” with the Salvation Army, which plans to move from its current headquarters to the Goodwill building on 11th Street. “It’s something that’s going to take a year and a half, two years, so we have to find these short-term solutions,” Davlin says. That project is still in the very early stages, however, says Dave MacDonna, capital campaign coordinator for the Salvation Army — soil sampling is still being performed at the Goodwill site. This week, the Army will open its fellowship hall as a temporary shelter for the homeless during the Friends of Lincoln Library Book Sale, which begins today. “People are probably not aware of the amount of work that’s going on behind the scenes, and it’s not solely directed at the people at the library,” says Kelker, the task-force chairman.
“People are falling through the cracks; some are working and have difficulty to make ends meet.”
Unfortunately, Kelker says, Springfieldians regard the library’s homeless population as a barometer of the overall homeless situation. In other words, because people are sleeping at the library, there’s a perception that nothing is being done to remedy the problem. He’s also aware of the criticism that the task force is too large to be effective. His suggestion to critics: Join one of the task force’s committees. “It takes a community to solve these problems,” Kelker says, “and it’s not a Salvation Army issue, a Helping Hands issue, or a city issue.
“I’m afraid we need a lot of cooks in the kitchen on this one.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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