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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 06:59 pm

Overflowing the overflow

Springfield homeless numbers raising concern

Rinda Steel of Ohio chats with Sienna Quick of Springfield at the city’s temporary overflow homeless shelter, where they each spent the night on Tuesday.

The flagging economy is delivering a fatal one-two punch to homeowners, and Springfield will likely feel the knockout this year as the city’s growing homeless numbers overwhelm local shelters.

According to online foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac Inc., banks continued to foreclose on homes at an astonishing pace this quarter – 937,840 homes across the nation in the past three months, which amounts to a 23 percent increase over 2008.

Combine that with unemployment rates approaching 10 percent – the highest rate in 26 years – and the result is a recipe for an alarming rise in homelessness.

Springfield’s temporary overflow shelter for the homeless opened its doors to those in need on Sunday, but local homelessness agencies project it, too, will overflow regularly this season. Some charities say they have already noticed a rise in the number of homeless people they must turn away at their own shelters, and the overflow shelter’s 50 beds probably won’t be enough when the harsh days of winter set in.

Run by a different local charity each year, the temporary overflow shelter in the United Methodist church building at the corner of Adams Street and Capitol Avenue provides emergency shelter each winter, when other shelters are usually full to capacity. It is open from Nov. 1 to April 30 each year. The Salvation Army of Springfield is running the overflow shelter this year, and shelter director Archie Ford says they will likely have to turn away many people this winter.

“We have, since about the middle of last year, had to turn away anywhere from four to 13 people a day,” Ford says of the Salvation Army’s permanent shelter at Sixth and Carpenter Streets. “We just don’t have the room for them. We have had an increase in numbers, and it will probably stay consistently higher.”

Bill Kienzle, executive director of Contact Ministries, says the number of people his shelter had to turn away last month increased by 38 percent compared with the same time period last year. Compared with two years ago, the increase in those turned away is close to 50 percent, he says.

On one recent day, Kienzle says, the shelter had to turn away 10 mothers and their children. At Contact’s 2008 Christmas giveaway, the charity gave winter clothing and supplies to 805 families in a single day. This year, Kienzle expects the number of needy families to jump to 1,000.

And if the overflow shelter itself overflows, Ford says there is nowhere for the remaining homeless to go.

“We will get creative and develop another option, but right now there is no other option,” he says.

Brenda Johnson, executive director of Helping Hands Homeless Shelter, says her group has actually seen a decrease in the number of people they’ve had to turn away compared with this time last year, but the numbers are still troubling. In July, August and September of this year, they had to turn away 167 people, compared with 234 over the same period in 2008.

She is quick to point out that they are still having to turn people away – a persistent problem.

“We’re always having folks show up without enough beds,” Johnson said. “For me personally, to believe that it would ever end, is like a perfect storm. You’d have to have all the funding that you need, all the service providers, all the support staff and all the affordable housing to come together – which may be the end of the world. For an alignment like that to happen, I think I might buy a lotto ticket that day.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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