Paulette Roberts, a veteran caseworker at Helping Hands, is well known for her derring-do.
When fights erupt, as they inevitably do at Springfield’s cramped and crowded homeless shelters, it’s often Roberts who bounds into the center of the action.
But last Thursday night, as the emergency overflow shelter prepared to close its doors, sending dozens of homeless people back onto the streets, even the fearless Roberts was shaken.
In the basement of Contact Ministries, shelter director Rita Tarr passed out sleeping bags and other essentials. Volunteers served up slices of pizza and scoops of ice cream. But the mood was hardly festive.
Many people had been staying at the overflow shelter since it first opened last November. Most didn’t know where they were headed. They lay quietly in their narrow beds or sat in a backroom, staring at a TV airing crime shows.
Meanwhile, outside, a man who was visibly intoxicated appeared on the front stoop. He pounded on the heavy metal door, forced his way inside, and staggered downstairs to the shelter, spitting obscenities at those who tried to obstruct him.
Roberts stepped forward to confront the man, as she has done in similar situations many times before. She patiently escorted him back outside, where he scowled and jabbed his index finger into her face. The man urinated on the building as Roberts retreated inside to call police.
“I really thought he was going to punch me,” Roberts said as she walked back downstairs. “It’s never happened before, but there’s always a first time.”
There’s nothing extraordinary about a drunken homeless person arriving at a shelter, acting belligerent, and making idle threats. But for the overflow shelter, it was unusual that a professional such as Roberts was there to defuse the situation.
Normally that burden would have fallen to an untrained volunteer. Springfield has two year-round emergency homeless shelters — the Salvation Army facility, which houses about 40 people, and Helping Hands, which sleeps about 25.
Social-service leaders joined forces last year — after a homeless man was found frozen to death near the Clear Lake overpass — to create a third option for the city’s neediest during the winter months.
Tarr squeezed several dozen bunk beds into the basement of Contact Ministries and helped form a committee that recruited more than 200 volunteers, mostly from area churches, to run what became known as the Springfield Overflow Shelter, or SOS.
The shelter, which stayed open for 12 to 16 hours each day, was staffed entirely by volunteers. During the overnight shift, 11 p.m.-7 a.m., just one volunteer was usually there to supervise.
During the last five months, SOS has taken in more than 300 people. Consistently filled beyond capacity, the shelter has housed more than 50 people a night despite being designed to hold just 30. This is not surprising; fewer than 100 emergency-shelter beds exist in Springfield to accommodate a homeless population that experts say exceeds 1,000.
But unlike the other emergency shelters, which enforce a strict code of rules, SOS sought to be more lenient. There was no breath analyzer with which to test and ward off apparent drunks, no metal detector to keep out guns and knives. Even those who were banned from the other shelters because of their brawling or boozing were welcome at SOS.
“Our goal was to make sure no one else froze to death,” says Tarr, who also chairs the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. “Last year there was a lot of negative publicity.”
But the lax environment led to several near-catastrophes, according to accounts from volunteers and members of the SOS committee, raising questions about safety precautions that should be taken when the shelter reopens in the fall.
Francie Staggs, an SOS committee member who also served as the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, recalls feeling physically threatened one night when a fight nearly broke out.
“A resident kicked a chair and started to yell,” Staggs recalls. “I felt fearful. I ran to the back desk, got the phone, and called 911.”
Such recollections are not uncommon. Two weeks ago, a man was found with a box cutter inside the shelter. People have often arrived at SOS so inebriated or high that they have had to be carried downstairs and lifted into bed.
Others have caught a buzz while in the shelter. Volunteers attest to regularly finding empty liquor bottles and beer cans and point to incidents in which people have been caught smoking crack cocaine.
Most appalling, Staggs says, was the realization that at least three convicted sexual offenders have been admitted. Each stayed for several nights before his criminal record was discovered. This is particularly worrisome because a transitional shelter for single women with children is housed in the same building, just a couple of stories above.
“I see a recipe for disaster,” says Robert Brooks, an SOS committee member who once oversaw both the Salvation Army and Helping Hands emergency shelters and now works at SARA Center, which offers assistance to people with HIV and AIDS.
“Sometimes in shelters things kick off and there’s fights with a lot of people involved,” Brooks continues. “How are church volunteers going to handle that?”
Most volunteers, such as LuAnn Atkins, say their experiences at the shelter were largely positive. They bonded with some of the clients and witnessed a side of life from which they are usually shielded. They also lamented that the shelter had to close, especially in light of the fact that temperatures this past weekend dipped into the midthirties.
But Atkins and others say that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of clients and volunteers alike.
“They should not give the responsibility to volunteers to handle these situations,” Atkins says. “It’s not a good way for an organization to operate.”
Some volunteers suggest conducting more aggressive background checks and installing a metal detector. But funding is limited. Tarr has applied for a $15,000 city grant with which to hire a professional to supervise the shelter and help keep the peace.
But Tarr bristles at any suggestion that SOS, in its first year of operation, was a powder keg that fortunately never exploded.
“This isn’t the only shelter to have the police called,” Tarr says. “I don’t think our volunteers were any more at risk than [were] people at other shelters.”