Currently in Archives. Click here to return to the new CU-CitizenAccess.Org website at any time.

Lack of refuge from winter may leave homeless out in cold

CHAMPAIGN -- Some homeless men in Champaign-Urbana might be left out in the cold this winter if organizers are unable to come up with a plan to revamp an overflow shelter that rotated between area churches in past years.

The TIMES Center, a transitional housing facility for homeless men at 70 E. Washington St., Champaign, previously administered the overflow shelter. Men who needed refuge from the winter weather would show up at the center to go through a screening process and were then taken to a church where they stayed the night. But after five years, the center will no longer offer the service this winter.

The decision comes as the homeless population appears to be increasing in Champaign County. The Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care conducted a survey in early August that counted 594 homeless people living in the county, a 20 percent increase from the 495 counted in January.

Jason Greenly, the TIMES Center’s supervisor, has met with local church leaders in recent weeks to create a new structure for the shelter and to find an organization willing to take the reins. Under the new design, men would come directly to the shelter site rather than checking in at the TIMES Center.

While some progress has been made, several people involved in the discussions expressed doubt about whether the plans would be in place in time for the shelter to open in January. The shelter typically operates through mid-April.

“We don’t necessarily think it’s going to happen this year,” Greenly said. “We’d like it to. We’re going to fight like it’s going to.”

While running the service was problematic for the TIMES Center, Greenly said it is important that the overflow shelter continue in some form.

“People should not have to sleep in the snow,” he said. “There are some human rights that are basic.”

Austin’s Place, a women’s overflow shelter at First United Methodist Church in downtown Champaign, will continue operating as it has since opening in 2008.

Feeling the strain

In fall 2004, the TIMES Center realized it would not have enough space to meet the demand for winter shelter. Officials met with several area agencies to come up with a plan, and the overflow shelter opened in January 2005 at First Presbyterian Church of Champaign’s downtown campus.

As more men used the overflow shelter each year, it strained the center’s small staff, said Greenly, who began as supervisor two years ago. The center has beds for 70 residents and often has only one staff member present, he said.

When additional men came to the TIMES Center to wait for transportation to the overflow site, one staff member often had to oversee as many as 100 men, a situation Greenly said was unsafe.

It also created tensions between the center’s residents and the overflow users.

“Because these extra guys are not held to the responsibilities at the TIMES Center, that ended up causing a lot of problems – and a lot of resentment among the guys who live here, who understand that to live here, they have to do things like chores, follow some basic rules,” Greenly said. “All these other guys don’t have to do that, and it’s very frustrating because it’s like all the benefits of the TIMES Center but none of the responsibilities of it.”

The center’s goal is to help homeless men progress toward independent living. Its programs are designed to help men save enough money to secure housing as well as address underlying issues – such as mental illness or addiction – that might be the root of their homelessness.

Residents are required to abide by a stringent set of rules. Violations can result in bans that last from 24 hours to a lifetime, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

The overflow shelter, on the other hand, was designed to provide a temporary respite from the cold and snow.

This created problems for the TIMES Center when men who want to stay at the overflow shelter showed up drunk, Greenly said.

Rather than sending intoxicated men to a church where volunteers were not trained to handle them, the center sometimes allowed them to stay the night in its facilities.

“If somebody’s intoxicated, we really don’t feel like we can turn them away,” Greenly said. “That puts the sobriety of all the other guys who are working on that here at risk.

“The overflow guys would take some of our residents down with them, and it just wasn’t working,” he added.

Mike and Mark, two TIMES Center residents who declined to give their last names, said that outside influence can be harmful to men who are recovering from addiction.

Although they haven’t lived at the center while the overflow shelter was in operation, they said similar issues arise with men who use its soup kitchen, which is open to the general homeless population.

“You’ve got to treat everybody the same in places like this, or it doesn’t work,” said Mike, 45, a former Danville resident who came to the center in September. “They can come in here drunk, and you get that influence. Ultimately you get the wrong crowd hanging around.”

While they said understand why the center is stepping back from its role in the overflow shelter, both men said they hope organizers can find a way to continue the service.

Some of the men who use the overflow are alcoholics and drug addicts, but “it doesn’t change the fact that they’re people and they need a place to stay,” said Mark, 42.

‘Time to rethink’

Rittchell Yau, a deacon at First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, has been involved with the overflow shelter since its inception.

Yau compared the experience to the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. “I felt like we were in the position to be able to help at that point, so that’s what we did,” she said.

First Presbyterian served as the host site the first year, and Savoy United Methodist Church and Restoration Urban Ministries came on board in 2006. The shelter spent one week each month at First Presbyterian and Savoy United Methodist and two weeks at Restoration.

Barb Davies, a member of Savoy United Methodist, volunteered at the shelter its first year, and approached her church about hosting the following year.

“Without even batting an eye, we said, ‘Of course we’ll participate,’ ” said the Rev. James McClarey, the church’s pastor.

Because the shelter was organized quickly the first year, it had flaws, Yau said. In addition to the strain on the TIMES Center, providing transportation for the overflow users was a constant issue.

“It definitely was time to rethink what we’ve been doing,” she said. “It was never intended to be the ideal thing to go on forever and ever.”

She said she hopes the ongoing planning process can create a shelter that better meets the needs of the men who use it.

Uncertain future

While she is working with Greenly and others to preserve the overflow shelter, Davies said she is not optimistic that it will come together by this winter.

“More than likely, this year it’s not going to happen,” she said. “It’s not something we can plan Dec. 28 to start Jan. 2. It’s going to be up to whether we can plan something really quick.”

Davies said she hopes they can get more churches involved.

“It’s a great way for everyone to get together and just show compassion to these men,” she said.

Leonard Brewer, Restoration’s liaison for the overflow shelter, said he’s optimistic that someone will take over.

“Thank the Lord the TIMES Center did what they did for the time they did it,” Brewer said. “Hopefully someone else will pick up the baton and continue to do it. I have no doubt … that someone’s going to step up to the plate.”

McClarey said his congregation wants to continue its involvement with the shelter.

“This is the way we believe Christ calls us to serve,” he said. “We’ve been blessed, and we’re blessed not to horde things but to share with others.”

First Presbyterian also plans to continue its involvement.

Due to space constraints, Restoration will not continue to be a host site. The group will house the Safe Haven community, which is moving from its current home at St. Mary Roman Catholic Church.

Greenly said the priority is finding an organization willing to take over. When that happens, plans should fall into place, he said. The TIMES Center even has mattresses to donate to the overflow shelter, he added.

Meanwhile, Greenly said he and his staff are doing the best they can to accommodate as many men as possible at the TIMES Center during the winter.

“Every winter we always get a little looser with letting people back in,” he said. “But we also have to get more creative because we don’t want to bring people in here to fail. What’s the point?”

By Dan Petrella

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.