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Housing resources scarce, especially for families in need

CHAMPAIGN – If you have a family, little or no money saved and the place you rent has been condemned, you may be out of luck even though local officials and social service providers are working to come up with plans to help people who need emergency housing.

“The bottom line across the board is money, money, money,” said John Sullivan, chairman of the Council of Service Providers for the Homeless. “The resources for emergency (housing) are very limited, especially if you are an intact family; you have no place to go.”

The lack of emergency housing became obvious last spring with two large-scale condemnations that displaced scores of low-income residents.

 Gateway Studios on North Neil Street in Champaign was closed in May because its owners failed to pay utility bills. More than 100 low-income residents were forced to relocate with just four days’ notice. Autumn Glen Apartments in Rantoul, which had at least 60 residents, closed a few weeks later after losing its utility service.

Officials began meeting in the summer to develop plans to help tenants affected by such large-scale condemnations, but resources for emergency housing remain scarce and, for some, nonexistent.

“There are no intact family shelters per se … and transitional housing is more based on a particular need or issue,” said Kelly Hartford, grants coordinator for Urbana’s Community Development Services.

Even these resources are threatened because the state’s budget crisis has forced cuts in many social service agencies, she said.

“A lot of them are hurting because they get funds through the state,” she said. “It’s affecting a lot of agencies through the community and the state.”

The problem is widespread, providers say.

Cunningham Township Supervisor Carol Elliott said the township’s general assistance welfare program provides a monthly cash grant and medical coverage for people who live within the township and have little or no income.

But the maximum $243 a month does not stretch far. And she said the grant can be “pretty tricky” because there’s a limit to how much income a person can have $650 a month.

“So we’re not too helpful with actually helping tenants relocate,” she said.

The plans that local officials and social service providers are working on helped identify resources that people might not know about, Elliott said.

“What it boils down to is we need money,” she said. “Services can be provided, but it’s not free.”

Elliott said planners hope to come up with ways to prevent large-scale condemnations in the future. But finding the money is still a big problem, she said.

“With the economy the way it is, all the agencies that might be helpful are now strapped,” she said. “It’s not just a local problem, it’s universal.”

In the meantime, city and county officials and service providers continue to collaborate on short-term and long-term plans.

This includes “early warning, quick response by local homeless prevention service providers, legal issues for prevention (and) remedies of these types of situations, and possible financial assistance for displaced households,” said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, in an e-mail.

One of the planners’ first steps has been to distribute a quick-help guide of local resources and contact information for people who need housing assistance.

The Council of Service Providers to the Homeless has also streamlined a referral process by creating an online database of available emergency housing that any agency can access.

When somebody calls in for help, the provider can tell them exactly where openings may be, saving the client several dead-end phone calls, Hartford said.

Urbana has also worked with utility companies to establish an early-notice system if a property faces shut-off.

Additionally, both Urbana and Champaign have reallocated or are in the process of reallocating some federal funds to help provide rent assistance to people in need.

“We’re certainly all coming together to tackle this issue,” said Libby Tyler, Urbana’s community development director. “I think it’s clear there are bigger issues out there that we’re also exploring.”

Collaborators are also planning a regional housing needs study, she said.

“There are shelter needs that aren’t being met,” Tyler said. “The indicators are there. There’s economic stress in the community. We’re seeing an increase in waiting lists and seeing an increase in homelessness.”

Rental inspections in Urbana have been a systematic way to help prevent these problems, she said.

“We want to make sure people are housed safely and securely,” Tyler said. “It’s important to do what we can.”

During a study session late last year, Champaign’s city council supported a proposal to set aside $60,000 to help local nonprofit agencies provide services in the event of large-scale condemnation like Gateway as part of the tenant relocation plan, said Kevin Jackson.

The plan focuses on large-scale condemnations because of the drain in resources they can have on cash-poor agencies, Jackson said.

“A universal situation like Gateway puts an unanticipated burden on the agencies and detracts from more routine situations,” he said.

Jackson anticipates proposing a final plan to the city council in the spring after the group meets again over the next few months.

The housing issues facing the community are complex, Sullivan said.“I think the core of the issue comes down to housing stock quality and availability and level of employment. Nobody is going to survive on minimum wage.”

This is especially true for families, he said.

As a result, he said, some people are forced to live in substandard housing.

While some landlords do want to improve their properties, they do not have the resources to do it, Sullivan said.

“If people were able to pay higher rent, (these landlords) could charge higher rent and have better property,” he said.

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