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Uncertain TIMES: State cuts jeopardize program for homeless men

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess -- On an average night last year, nearly 60 homeless men didn't have to sleep on the streets of Champaign-Urbana thanks to the TIMES Center.

But like so many other service providers in Illinois, the transitional housing program for homeless men, located near downtown Champaign, faces an uncertain future as a result of the state’s ongoing fiscal morass. In the state budget that took effect July 1, the TIMES Center, 70 E. Washington St., saw grant funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity slashed by a combined $95,000, officials said.

The Department of Human Services funding was part of $4.7 million for homeless services cut from the budget this year, impacting shelters and other programs across the state at a time when poverty and homelessness appear to be on the rise. In January, a local survey counted 549 homeless people in Champaign-Urbana, up from 495 two years earlier.

Jason Greenly, TIMES Center supervisor, said that, although his staff was already stretched too thin, the cuts meant having to eliminate one and a half staff positions. As a result, the facility is now technically closed to most residents during daytime hours.

However, Greenly said, “We can’t actually physically close the building and lock the door.”

The center’s daily soup kitchen, which is available to the general public, remains open, and Greenly said residents who work nights need to be able to sleep there during the day.

In practice, the daytime closure means the center’s recovery advocates, who work with residents to make sure they are looking for work and are receiving treatment for mental-health or substance-abuse problems, aren’t able to meet with the men during the day or to take care of day-to-day business, such as making calls to other service providers, during regular business hours.

They have to find ways to fit this work into their nighttime hours, in addition to handling the intake of new residents who come in off the street, making sure chores get done, mediating any conflicts that arise among the men and other duties, Greenly said.

“It can be done,” Greenly said, acknowledging that many other programs throughout the state are also being forced to find ways to maintain services with less funding. “It’s not like we’re special in that regard.”

Even before the recent cuts, the TIMES Center has had to eliminate some services that were overtaxing its staff.

In 2009, the center withdrew from its role in administering an emergency overflow shelter for homeless men during the winter months. Consequently, that service has not been offered during the past two winters.

For the time being, the TIMES Center will do what it can to continue helping homeless men transition back to living independently, Greenly said.

“You can’t just stop something like TIMES Center,” he said. “It would have this huge, negative impact on the community, not to mention the individuals.”

Keeping the center going “has always been an extraordinary struggle,” he said. “You can’t maintain something at the level of struggle forever.”

Sheila Ferguson, CEO of Community Elements, the nonprofit agency that oversees the TIMES Center, said the program has always been in a precarious financial position.

“We were always losing a little money every year,” she said. As the state has reduced funding and gotten behind on its bills for other services Community Elements provides, it has put increasing pressure on the center.

“We like to be able to respond to those in need, and it’s become very hard,” Ferguson said. “I think people believe we can continue to operate. We’re running out of resources to do that.”

The United Way of Champaign County has helped out with a $15,000 safety net grant, and grant money from the city of Urbana is helping fund the installation of more energy-efficient lighting to cut down on energy costs, Ferguson said. A recent fundraiser also brought in about $6,000.

Despite all these efforts, the future of the TIMES Center remains uncertain.

“I’m not sure it will be enough,” Ferguson said.

She said she hopes lawmakers will reconsider the cuts to homeless services and other Department of Human Services programs during its fall veto session, which begins this week.

Gov. Pat Quinn used his line-item veto power to reduce the General Assembly’s budget by $376 million and reportedly will push for legislators to reallocate that money to education and human services during the veto session.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s budget office declined to comment on whether funding for homeless services is on Quinn’s list of priorities.

“We are not releasing any details about active discussions we’ve been having with legislators about reallocation,” spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said. “The Quinn administration continues to have active discussion with legislators about reallocation, so that’s all the detail that I can provide.”

Greenly, the TIMES Center supervisor, said he “holds out hope” that the funding cuts for programs like his will be reversed, either in the veto session or in next year’s state budget.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest for us to be successful here,” he said.

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