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Champaign officials exploring options to help area homeless

CHAMPAIGN – Officials will be looking for ways to solidify support for the homeless in Champaign County.

"We are suggesting a tiny amount of caulk to fill the cracks in the planks through which people are falling every day," Champaign City Council member Michael La Due said Tuesday night at a council study session on housing issues.

The council unanimously voted to direct the city staff to pursue three options: developing an emergency tenant relocation plan; a housing needs study; and exploring a safety net fund to expand emergency shelter service during the recession.

Kevin Jackson, director of the Champaign neighborhood services department, said all three will be done in partnership with other cities and service providers.

Attention on a lack of emergency shelter for the homeless was heightened since the closing this year of the Gateway Inn motel in Champaign, followed by the threatened closing of Restoration Urban Ministries and A Woman's Fund.

The May closing of Gateway Inn left 100 people without a home on three days notice, Jackson said.

Social services and city staff scrambled to find other housing, but some were unable to be accommodated, he said.

Restoration Urban Ministries, a faith-based social service near Mattis and Bradley avenues, was also threatened with being closed for failure to pay utility bills, the same problem that caused the Gateway Inn to be closed.

Meanwhile, A Woman's Fund, which provides shelter for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, was also threatened with closure due to delays in state funding.

Not all the people involved would need help, but there has to be a way to identify the needs and explore housing options, Jackson said.

The city will look at using $60,000 of $300,000 in federal grant money set aside by the council for expansion of the city's "Community Matters" program, which seeks to improve neighborhoods through long-term support.

Champaign will work with Urbana, Rantoul and other agencies to develop a communitywide plan to deal with emergency tenant relocations, including coordination of non-housing support services.

The regional partners will also conduct a comprehensive housing needs study and explore creation of a safety net fund to expand emergency shelter service.

Len Heumann, retired professor at the University of Illinois and an expert in housing issues, said the "really scary problem now is family homelessness."

"This is going to be the really big problem," said Heumann, who is vice president of the Homestead Corp., which provides low-income housing.

A survey showed a 36 percent increase – from 264 in January to 358 in August this year – for homeless families with children, he said.

Meanwhile, there is a waiting list of 2,000 people for federal Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers, he said.

In the audience participation portion of the meeting Tuesday, Lynn Stuckey of Champaign said the community needs more affordable housing.

"We cannot afford to have half-million-dollar homes being built all the time," Stuckey said.

She said many working poor people have inadequate housing because that's all they can afford at a particular time. She said those people do not want to complain about potential code violations for fear of being kicked out or having their rent raised. Either way, it would result in homelessness, she said.

La Due agreed, saying, "We really need to focus our efforts on cultivation of efficiency units en masse. We need to address housing for people who earn $25,000 a year."

La Due, who has long been an advocate for a single-room occupancy development in Champaign, said that "may be the most important thing we can do."

Single-room occupancy or SRO housing involves a subsidized boarding house for homeless and near-homeless people.

Council member Dave Johnson, District 5, supported further study of the issues by city staff, but questioned where that will lead the city council.

"What's our role?" Johnson asked. "Are we the facilitators? Are we the Big Brother? Are we supposed to be the builder and developer? And that all leads to the question, what's the funding source?"

Sheila Ferguson, chief executive officer for the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which operates the TIMES Center transitional shelter for men in Champaign, also said the community needs to look at single-room occupancy housing.

This winter, the TIMES Center will not have winter emergency shelter due to staff and space being stretched to the limit, like most other providers for homeless services, she said.

"Any options you have are limited with a limited staff," Ferguson said. "It's an example of how we need enhanced services or extra resources."

Social services are a vital part of responding to homelessness, she said.

"There are a lot of barriers, but they are all individualized," Ferguson said. "You need someone to work with the homeless, whether it's due to financial or credit reasons, substance abuse or mental health issues. It's only when they have a safe, stable environment that they can begin to work on the underlying issues."

The News-Gazette


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