Homeless Try To Stay Warm, Together
By Sean Powers
For homeless people in central Illinois, escaping the recent snow and frigid temperatures can be a challenge. Shelters and transition centers offer short-term help for some, but homeless families often face a tough choice between staying together or staying warm.
On a recent Thursday, Barb Davies gives out blankets, food, and clothing to homeless people in Champaign-Urbana.
Davies is operating out of a Salvation Army truck with a group of dedicated volunteers. She helps Teresa Webb, 50, who has been homeless for eight months.
“If people knew how many homeless people that are out here, and that you really have nowhere to go and if it wasn’t for these trucks that come and give us blankets and stuff, a lot of us would be….we would have nothing,” Webb said. “I never realized how the problem was like that until I became like that. You know, where do you sleep at most of the time? Shelters fill up quick. You know, so where do they expect people to go?”
Webb said she often connects with other homeless people at places like soup kitchens, the library, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Her situation isn’t unique.
A recent survey done by community outreach groups in the area puts Champaign County’s homeless population at more than 200 people. But a United Way report from a couple years earlier has it at around twice that amount.
Over at the Salvation Army building in Champaign, Johnny Ward, 38, is waiting for a bus ride with his fiancé.
“We was staying with my sister for a little while,” he said. “Probably for like a month and a half, but things got a little tough there. She told us we had to leave. So, we left. After that, we’ve just kind of been in a shelter in Bloomington.”
After a couple of months at the Bloomington shelter, Ward and his fiancé are again looking for a place to stay. They have been homeless for about three months. With seven kids living in Chicago and Danville and an eighth on the way, they’re not giving up hope. However, they say they don’t know what they’re going to do.
“Unfortunately, we’re probably going to see a lot of people like that,” said Dan Davies, who helps his wife Barb in the Salvation Army truck.
“We’re not seeing as many people in the evening, which we hope is a good thing,” Davis added. “We’re hoping they have some shelter someplace, or at least they’re bunked down someplace warm. It is exceptionally cold. We’ve been fortunate in the past with some warmer winters, but this winter is going to be tough.”
During last week’s cold snap, the Salvation Army of Champaign County and the Savoy United Methodist Church opened up emergency warming centers for men, women, and children. But for families looking to stay together, there are few options.
For men, there are some transitional housing and shelter options. There are also some options just for children, or women and children. Thereis a shelter in Champaign for families, but space is limited to about a dozen people.
(HERE IS A LIST OF CHAMPAIGN COUNTY SHELTERS AND TRANSITION CENTERS)
Johnny Ward said he hopes to stay at Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign. It’s not a shelter, but instead offers families 11-month transitional housing. Ervin Williams oversees that program, and he said keeping families together is a big part of solving homelessness.
“If it’s possible, the intent is that we can not only keep the family together, but as we work with them they learn to develop new values and a different approach at how to tackle this thing called poverty because those are the ones that really got to do this,” Williams said. “We can support and aid, but it’s got to be the way they think and the actions they take that’s going to make it last.”
Williams said there are times when people will refuse shelter because they don’t want to be split up. He said there needs to be more options for families to stay together.
From last February until September, the United Way of Champaign County launched a pilot program to do that. The United Way’s Beverly Baker said it involved putting 36 families in hotel rooms in Champaign-Urbana, and surrounding them with case managers to assess their needs.
“The majority were able to move onto a non-emergency living arrangement,” Baker said. “They were able to secure their own apartment. They were able to get connected to other programs that offered rent subsidies and things like that or they were able to repair broken relationships with family members and move back in with a family or friend.”
Baker said she worked with area schools in this pilot program to make sure children were transported from the hotel to their classrooms. She said there is definitely a need for this type of emergency shelter - 70 families who had expressed interest had to be turned away. Baker said the United Way is working on a more permanent solution.
“Hotels are not the most cost effective thing to do for infinity, and so we’ve been working with a number of local partners trying to figure out how we can address this gap in services,” she said. “We’re looking at a pilot much like last year that can help to fill that gap.”
Baker won’t reveal too much more about this new program, only that it will be available by later this year. Many people say service providers in the area are doing a good job working together to make sure as few people as possible are left on the streets.
Over at the Urbana Free Library, Dan Davies, who’s helping run the Salvation Army supply truck, surveys the library for any other homeless people who may need assistance. Outside, he pauses to look at the front deck of the library, still haunted by the memory of someone he tried to help.
“One of the guys that died on us, we’d always seem him up here,” Davies said. “I can’t look up there without seeing his face and remembering him. He was so much fun. He was a riot. The guy had a great sense of humor, and he lived on the streets.”
Asked if he remembered the man’s name, Davies didn’t even pause to think: “Norm, Norm Hall.”