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No place to sleep: Homeless families look for options

Alissa Groeninger/CU-CitizenAccess — The number of homeless families and individuals in Champaign County has increased so significantly that the system of emergency shelters and transitional housing cannot come close to keeping up.

As a result, housing advocates and officials estimate that more than 200 individuals and families this winter in Champaign County will have to live in cars, on the street or on friends’ floors.

Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette - Tina Lee and her son, Pierre James. Lee and her family of six had a hard time finding emergency housing after a fire forced the family into homelessness.Furthermore, they say, the need for housing will soar even higher as winter temperatures plummet.

Of most concern to officials and advocates is the rise in homeless families stemming from high unemployment and foreclosure rates caused by the recession.

“What we are most worried about is the growth of families with children becoming homeless, and reports from the school districts in the county (indicate) we are facing a growth over last year,” said Len Heumann, former University of Illinois professor and an advocate for affordable housing.

Advocates say interviews with families reveal that they sleep in cars in places they feel safe, like truck stops. The number of families denied shelter is not currently tracked but an upcoming Champaign County Council of Service Providers’ study will be used to show local donors what the need is for homeless families.

“We all know because we hear stories and we know there’s a need” for individuals, said Beverley Baker, United Way’s director of community impact. But, she said, the families go under the radar.

Baker said families will often walk into the United Way offices off the street looking for shelter. They explain that they’ve been scraping by, staying with friends or pooling just enough money for cheap hotel rooms.



Seventy families in Champaign County do not have transitional or emergency shelters, according to a preliminary Regional Housing Study report released in November. This means more families are in shelters or are staying with friends.

The number of homeless families and individuals in the county has nearly doubled in five years.  From January to August 2009 alone,  the number increased by 20 percent, according to the last survey done by theUrbana-Champaign Continuum of Care., a consortium of social service providers.

In the county, there at least 590 homeless people, but there are only 277 beds in transitional shelters and 47 in emergency shelters. Transitional housing is for people who need housing for weeks or months as they try to rebuild their lives. Those facilities usually have classes and programs for residents. Emergency housing is for people who need a place to stay for one or two nights.

Patchwork of services

The available facilities in the county offer a patchwork of services, with different mission statements and requirements.  Some shelters accept just women, some accept women and children, and some accept only men, which means families have to split up.Thus, the waiting lists continue to grow for the shelters and housing, with ratios of up to 10 to 1 for available beds because of restrictions.

Graphic showing 64 percent change from 2005 to 2007 in Champaign County. Another problem: There’s no centralized location where the homeless can go to find housing, said Sue Grey, the United Way’s vice president of community impact.  United Way employees interviewed 120 people who needed housing and did not know what agencies they to go to.

“You are in such a state of crisis at the time if you are homeless,” Grey said.  “I just can’t imagine being in that state and how exasperating and frustrating that would be, to have to try and call five different places to find a place to lay your head that night.”

The number and types of facilities in the county point to other problems, said Kelly Hartford, grants coordinator for Urbana. While there is not enough transitional housing as a whole, there is even less available emergency housing. 

As a consequence, people who need emergency housing often spend those few nights on the streets because they cannot get into a shelter, Hartford said.  Compounding the problem, their needs are often not considered great enough for transitional programs, which have to limit numbers due to space and money restraints.

Shelter officials consider a person homeless if he or she does not own a house or rent an apartment, and whose only options are staying temporarily in someone else’s home, moving to a shelter or living on the street.

The say homelessness has no single cause. The homeless can include:

  • Individuals and families who have lost homes or apartments.
  • The mentally ill and “marginal populations” such as those who are transgender.
  • Transient people who have unstable situations and backgrounds.
  • Convicted felons who have trouble getting jobs.

“Their problems aren’t as simple as they used to be,” Baker of United Way said.

She said the seven biggest needs this population has are access to health care services, housing, education, mental health services, employment, family support and childcare and basic needs.                       

 Families and childrenGraphic showing 70 homeless families, and 325 homeless students

 “Impact families” – homeless families – are often hit the hardest and forced to separate because there are few options for families who become homeless, said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.   

Either two-parent or single-parent families can be impact families.  There are no emergency shelters for families. Restoration Urban Ministries, the only family program in Illinois south of I-80, is the only program that can take whole families, single fathers with kids and mothers with sons over 14.  

There are 325 homeless students in the Champaign County school districts, said Barb Daly, assistant superintendent of the Regional Office of Education. She said the number is really climbing.

Over the course of a year, more homeless families move into Champaign County so that by June 2011 she expects that number of homeless students will grow to more than 400.

Families move to Champaign for jobs because the county has some minimum wage positions.  The families come from many locations, including Chicago, St. Louis, Peoria and Indianapolis.  About 100 migrant families travel from Texas each spring. 

 “You rarely see two cases that are alike because they’re human experiences,” Daly said.

The fastest growing group of children the school board sees is “unaccompanied youths.”  These students will sleep on someone’s floor.

 Daly said these children rarely miss school because , as they feel safe, have shelter and are around people who can give them positive feedback.

While “impact families” are often considered to be the most neglected group, it is important to realize there is not enough available housing for everyone, Hartford said.  Money and space restraints are the two biggest blocks preventing more shelters, she added.

Most of the transitional housing programs – which offer people places to stay, classes and help to move into their own places – are for individuals or women with children. The Center for Women in Transition and A Woman’s Fund, which merged, provide transitional housing for those who need somewhere to stay for up to a month. 

The programs provide housing for women who are fleeing domestic violence situations or who have been sexually assaulted, and provide emergency housing for those who need a place to stay for one or two nights.      

There are transitional living options in the county, but the trouble really exists when someone is homeless for a night, said Kerri Spear, neighborhood program manager for Champaign.  It’s difficult to find individuals and families places to stay if they are between living arrangements.

None of the emergency shelters can accept intact families and Restoration is the only transitional shelter that can do so.  Crisis Nursery provides short-term housing for children. Roundhouse used to be the only shelter in the county for adolescents and teens, but it had to change its mission after losing a grant.  It now serves young adults, ages 18 to 20.

Because of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools have to take homeless students without making them jump through any hurdles. Students do have to get their immunizations but the districts have to let them start before they have all their paperwork.  The regional board makes “sure we can advocate for their educational rights,” Daly said.

As for long term housing, the Champaign County Housing Authority has a waiting list of 594 individuals and families seeking Section 8 vouchers that allow them to find subsidized apartments, said Ed Bland, the authority’s executive director. There are 43 individuals and families on the public housing waiting list, which includes units with between one and five bedrooms. 

The waiting list for units with three, four and five bedrooms is open until the end of January so people can add their names.  However, the Section 8 list has been closed for years and families that are new to the area cannot even add their names.

Funding drops for churches, nonprofitsGraphic showing 590 needs beds, but only 324 are available.

Churches and other nonprofits finance most shelters, but those groups have been hit hard by the recession.  A review of four local nonprofits shows that their budgets are suffering as they use up surplus funds or end up with deficits.

Donations to Restoration Urban Ministries have decreased by 20 percent since last year and the organization finished 2010 well short of the $500,000 it needs each year to house over 100 people, offer a food pantry and provide residents with classes, said Judy Stoll, financial officer.  Restoration is a transitional living program and as of last month, Restoration had raised two-thirds of the money it needed for 2010, Stoll said.

While the recession has made things worse, Restoration always has struggled for donations.  It receives no government funding because of its religious affiliation and it doesn’t get money from the United Way.  The program has almost shut down several times, including last year when it went to the Champaign City Council for aid.  The effort failed but brought media exposure and extra donations came in.  

In addition, local shelter managers predict the count of homeless people will obviously be higher in the winter because shelter is necessary for survival in the harsh weather.

If low-income residents have any small crisis in their lives - such as their winter heating bills spike – they just do not have any flexibility in their budget, said the regional board’s Kloeppel.       

Social service providers work together during the winter to provide housing, food and clothing, but that will not end the homeless problem, Heumann said.

“This is going to take planning, and money, and unfortunately time,” Heumann said. “The big problem is it is very hard to measure the full need for affordable housing and how bad the emergency needs of homeless households will be this winter.”

Austin’s Place, an emergency women’s shelter, opened in January for its fourth season.  The only women’s emergency shelter in the county, it is operated by the Center for Women in Transition at Champaign’s First United Methodist Church. It receives a small amount of Federal Emergency Management Agency money, but runs mostly on donations and volunteer work.  

The shelter stays open until April 1 and can serve eight women at a time. It serves women who are chronically homeless because they aren’t stable enough to find employment, said Cathy Koerber, co-founder of the shelter and programs manager at the Center for Women in Transition.

However, there will be no additional men’s or family emergency shelters this winter. A men’s emergency shelter was discontinued in 2009 because of lack of space and security concerns.  The men were staying at the Times Center and center officials said they distracted other men in transitional programs who were trying to turn their lives around, work on site and avoid drugs. 

Adding to the overflow this winter, Urbana’s Hanford Inn & Suites was shut down by the fire department in October. Low-income and poor families and indviduals from the hotel suddenly became homeless.  City of Urbana employees helped pay for families to stay in motels for a week, Hartford said. 


Mental illness and marginal populations

 Women who have severe mental illness who in the past have sought t the Center for Women in Transition aren’t able to meet the requirements for residency that include going to classes.Koerber said.  These women would do better in a mental health group home but many of those programs have fees the women can’t afford.

Advocates attribute part of the current homeless problem to the closing of federal mental institutions in the late 20th century, said Catherine An, media relations and communications specialist for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. A number of mental institutions in Illinois were closed in the 1970s.  

Most of the shelters can work with people who have low-level mental illness, like anxiety and depression, but have a hard time helping people with more severe illnesses.  Shelters have had to turn these people away.  We refer people to the Mental Health Center but you need an income or insurance to use their programs so “it’s difficult,” Koerber said.

Marginal populations, like transgender individuals, have a hard time finding places to stay, Koerber said, reiterating “those are our challenges.”  Registered sex offenders cannot stay at many of the shelters because it’s a liability to take them, said Jason Greenly, supervisor of the Times Center.  The Times Center can have only two registered sex offenders at one time.

“There’s a lot more than two registered sex offenders who are homeless in Champaign-Urbana,” Greenly said.

It’s a “liability for a reason,” Greenly said.  “These folks that are at a high risk to reoffend” will be staying with younger residents.

The center can only take two parolees at one time, but Greenly said he regularly makes exceptions.  Most of the shelters can take other felons.