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Wednesday, May 27, 2009 03:44 am

An end to homelessness?

For years, the city said there was no money for the homeless. Now there’s lots of it.

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A member of Homeless United for Change during a March 2008 demonstration to protest the closing of the Springfield Overflow Shelter. This year the shelter remained open until May 1.
“Hey, we’re just like you are — we just don’t have the paycheck,’” Tim Hawker said of the homeless in 2007. He died on May 21 at age 48.

Billie Aschmeller has no doubt in her mind about what happened to Tim Hawker.

“He died from being homeless,” she says, adding: “You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re in a casket to have a permanent home.”

Hawker, who was one of about two dozen homeless people who slept at Lincoln Library before the city ended the practice in June 2007, slipped into a diabetic coma on Tuesday, May 19; he died two days later.

Days before Hawker’s death, another homeless man, named Howard Turner, also died after living on the streets.

Friends and fellow homeless like Aschmeller believe that these men might still be alive if better services had been available to them. Although service providers agree that more could be done, they also say that too often people simply choose not to take advantage of the programs available to help them.

Both groups are partly right. A count conducted in January 2008 by the Heartland Continuum of Care, which divvies federal Housing and Urban Development money between local groups, found 379 homeless individuals — 115 children and 264 adults.

At the time, there were seven unhoused individuals, 45 residing in permanent housing programs, 97 people in transitional shelters and 115 living in staying in emergency shelters.

The 2009 numbers will be released in June in conjunction with the unveiling of an updated “Mayor’s Ten-Year Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.”

In a city the size of Springfield, it seems that such a problem could be solved with strokes from a few pens. However, for years, both agencies and governmental entities have lamented the paucity of funds available to adequately serve everyone who needs social services.

Money hasn’t been the only problem. The Salvation Army, which knows how to raise cash as well as anyone, has wanted to expand its shelter operations for more than five years but came up against a number of roadblocks.

Quietly the tide now appears to be turning — and in some major ways.

The Salvation Army recently announced its intention to purchase and remodel the former Horace Mann annex building at 100 N. Ninth Street. Plus, an unprecedented $1.1 million from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is headed to town, earmarked exclusively to prevent homelessness and to re-house those who had residences but fell back into homelessness.

The money was made available through the Department of Housing and Urban Development under a program known as Homelessness Prevention Rapid Rehousing. Of the total, $512,000 is being provided directly to the city with another $592,000 coming from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The federal money will go a long way toward addressing homeless problem in Springfield. And for the first time, advocates, city officials, service providers and homeless people themselves say an end to homelessness is in sight.

Much of the pressure will be taken off when the Salvation Army more than doubles the space of its current shelter to 80 to 100 beds. In early May, the church unveiled plans to purchase a three-story building downtown to serve as administrative headquarters, a community center, and homeless shelter.

The total price tag is $6.8 million (of that, $3.4 million represents the purchase price) for the project. The rest is for remodeling the 60,000-square-foot building that once housed Horace Mann employees as well as expansion of several services the organization provides. For example, they’ll be able to able to purchase a deep freezer to use in the food pantry.

On Wednesday, May 20, the Springfield Planning and Zoning committee approved the variance request needed to use the space for residential purposes. In June, the city council will decide whether to give the project final approval.

So far, no opposition has been voiced, which in itself is a minor miracle.

In January 2006 — on the same night the city council approved Springfield’s smoking ban — aldermen rejected the Salvation Army’s proposal to construct a new facility on J. David Jones Pkwy., across from Oak Ridge Cemetery, citing opposition from neighborhood groups.

Then, in the fall of 2007, the Army balked at purchasing property from Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries at 800 N. 10th St., apparently over concerns about a leaking underground fuel tank.

According to Major Paul Logan, the corps officer for the Springfield Army, more than 35 properties were considered. In most cases, he says, location — not price — was the major sticking point.

When the Salvation Army secured the Horace Mann site, capital campaign director Dave MacDonna said, the mood at Salvation Army headquarters was ecstatic. The Salvation Army plans to sell its headquarters building at 530 N. Sixth St. and use the proceeds to fund their move.

“Everyone was cheering,” MacDonna says. But no matter how quickly the Army moves — Logan and MacDonna say some programs may be phased into the new building even as the renovation is being conducted – the homeless will have to make it through another winter on the streets, to say nothing of the approaching summer swelter.

One solution offered by Homeless United for Change is to reopen the Springfield Overflow Shelter, which normally operates just during the winter months. The city, they say, should also take charge of arranging for a day center equipped with computers so people can look for jobs on the Internet, prepare for job interviews, and just spend a few hours off the streets.

Springfield community-relations director Sandy Robinson (center) speaks with Tim Hawker (right) and another homeless man the day the city closed Lincoln Library to overnight camping.

For those items, HUC is looking to Mayor Tim Davlin’s office, and the person he put in charge of coordinating homeless services, community relations director Sandy Robinson. HUC members have repeatedly charged the Davlin administration and Robinson with stonewalling the group.

“We have an administration – and it’s probably a tradition in Springfield; I don’t think it’s just Davlin – where you’d think you were in a poker game in a dark room,” says Barb Olson, one of HUC’s lead organizers. “We hesitate to say there’s a culture of secrecy but that certainly is what it feels like.”

HUC has outlined the group’s grievances and recently held a rally outside city hall. They’re asking the city to impose strict transparency and accountability requirements on the Sangamon County Heartland Continuum of Care, which distributes federal homeless dollars, as well as the agencies that will be in charge of the homelessness prevention and re-housing programs for families and individuals (MERCY Communities, Sara Center and Fifth Street Renaissance, respectively).

Most of all, HUC says homeless people should play a larger role in planning the services of which they’ll be the primary users, particularly in the initial phases of the ongoing recalibration of the 10-year homeless plan. Additionally, the homeless had no input into which agencies would receive the federal money, members say.

“It was very discouraging being told right at the beginning that no matter what we said, it wouldn’t make a difference,” Olson says.

Robinson describes such statements as mischaracterizations. For the 10-year plan revision, he says, questionnaires were provided to social service agencies as well as HUC, which were then submitted to Sikich Gardner & Co., the strategic planning firm in charge of the project due out in June, Robinson says.

“No one’s been locked out. HUC has been able to participate at the same level as every other agency.”

As far as demanding greater transparency, Robinson says he can’t require agencies to update their Web sites or make reports beyond the quarterly reports mandated by the federal government.

But HUC’s strategy is this: “We’re asking for more transparency than we expect to get because we’d like to get a little,” Olson says. That also seems to be the impetus for launching a petition drive named in honor of Hawker to reopen an overflow shelter for the summertime.

Robinson hopes that with the amount of assistance coming to Springfield that the SOS will no longer be needed.

He says: “When we have an adequate number of shelter beds, that eliminates the ‘O’ and the SOS ceases to exist.”

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