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Safe Haven community seeks alternative to the elements

CHAMPAIGN --  David Nash knows how dangerous life can be for homeless people living alone on the streets.

While Nash was serving time in state prison for forgery in August 2002, his father was beaten to death by three teenage boys in a grassy area near the Martin Luther King subdivision in Champaign.

Robert James Nash, 55, had been living nearby at the TIMES Center, a transitional housing facility for homeless men, but was kicked out for violating the center's rules, his son said.  

The murder baffled police for about a month until they received an anonymous letter implicating four teens. Three of those named in the letter were convicted and are serving prison sentences ranging from 15 to 27 years. The fourth was acquitted.

"Sleeping out there in the elements, anything can happen to you," Nash said.

Nash, 38, is now one of the leaders of Safe Haven, a self-governing community of homeless people that is attempting to create a new alternative to "sleeping out there in the elements."


While the group has found temporary refuge at Restoration Urban Ministries, its sights remain set on establishing a more permanent community. They hope to find a place where they can build small, semi-permanent structures to serve as temporary housing for people who can't find room in, or don't want to live in, a homeless shelter.

The concept is based on Dignity Village, a Portland, Ore., community that has existed with that city's blessing since 2001.While the idea faces continued opposition from the city of Champaign, the group's organizers are preparing to present their plan to officials in Urbana.

Safe Haven formed in May in a backyard next to the Catholic Worker House, 317 S. Randolph St., C. A group of homeless people decided to pitch tents in the yard in hope of finding safety and a sense of community as a group, supporters said.

The community started at a time when the homeless population in Champaign County appears to be on the rise.

The Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care conducted a survey in early August that counted 594 homeless people in the county, a 20 percent increase from the 495 counted in January.

In its first seven months, Safe Haven has survived a protracted zoning dispute with Champaign and relocated six times. It also has expanded its size and vision.

Now numbering between 30 and 40 members, the group has elected a leadership council - to which Nash belongs - and established a set of rules banning alcohol, drugs and violence.  

Abby Harmon, 27, is a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois and a Safe Haven advocate.  

"We believe that privacy is a part of dignity," Harmon said. "And one of the things that happens with emergency shelters or transitional centers, if there is no wall separating you from somebody else, it's very difficult to have your own sense of haven or sanctuary away from people, away from just the chaos of day-to-day events." 

This spring was not the first time homeless people had set up tents in back of the Catholic Worker House, said Sara Kammlade, 21, a senior in biology at the UI and resident volunteer at the house. The house provides shelter mainly to homeless women and children. 

 "We used to have people camping out in our backyard all the time, and they were just friends of ours that would put up tents and stuff and sleep back there," she said. "And it wasn't a problem at all."

The community that grew into Safe Haven was started by Jesse Masengale, 22, a former resident of the Catholic Worker House, Kammlade said.

Masengale, who has left Safe Haven but remains an advocate for its cause, did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

"He just got together a bunch of friends that he knew that were sleeping outside," she said. "It's not very safe to be sleeping on your own; it works out a lot better when you have a group of friends that you're living with."

Last year, there were 106 violent acts committed against homeless people nationwide, 27 of which were fatal, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In Illinois, there were attacks in Elgin and Peoria and a string of beatings in Rockford, none of them fatal.

Neighbors quickly lodged complaints about the tent community with the city, which ruled it violated zoning ordinances and could not stay.

After a brief stop at an RV park in Mahomet, two nights indoors at New Covenant Fellowship, 124 W. White St., C, and a weeklong stay at a private residence in Champaign, the group was welcomed to the place that would be its home for the next 100 days.

* * * * 

The Rev. Tom Royer is the pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church and a member of the Catholic Worker House's advisory board.

After learning of Safe Haven's run-in with the city, he invited its members in mid-August to pitch their tents on the church's lot, believing the city would not insist on enforcing zoning laws on church property.

The city told Royer the church would be fined $750 per day if it allowed the tent community to continue in violation of zoning laws. St. Mary then opened its parish center to the community, eventually allowing the members to live there full time.

Royer offered to host Safe Haven for 30 days while organizers looked for a more permanent location, but its stay ended up lasting 100 days.

During its time at St. Mary, the community grew.

Members started reaching out to people they encountered at soup kitchens and food pantries, and some service providers began referring people to the community.

Nash joined Safe Haven shortly after its arrival at the church. After the two-week probationary period required of anyone who wants to join, he became a full member and was eventually elected to be one of the group's five council members.

He grew up in north Champaign and moved back in August after living in Peoria for five years. His family convinced him to return when he was hospitalized after a group of men jumped him and beat him with bricks while he was out one night, he said.

"They brought my ex-wife along, and I was supposed to move in with her, but things didn't work out," he said. "So my family, they wanted me to come home, but I felt that for me to make it, I got to struggle on my own to make it."

Nash briefly moved in with his sister, but that didn't work out, either. He was walking with some friends one night when they decided to stop by the parish center, where he discovered Safe Haven.

Billie Creek is another member who joined the community during its stay at St. Mary.

The 44-year-old mother of three said she lost her job as a home health-care worker in March and had to move out of her apartment in October after getting behind on the rent.

She tried to find housing in a women's shelter, but both the Center for Women in Transition and A Woman's Place had long waiting lists. She was told to call St. Mary Church.

"It's just by the grace of God this place opened," said Creek, whose 24-year-old son is serving in Iraq. Her 18- and 11-year-old sons live with family members, she said.  

After a two-week probationary period, she was chosen to be the council's secretary.

Creek spends most of her time looking for jobs, she said. She sells plasma to earn extra money and does volunteer work at Salem Baptist Church, she added.

While the stay at St. Mary allowed the community to grow and focus on the future, the living arrangements lacked the privacy the founding members were looking for when they first pitched their tents.

With winter approaching, organizers were looking for a place that would provide more privacy for residents.

"When it's sunny and warm, people can sit outside," Royer said "But it creates more problems when they have to be indoors all the time in kind of a small space."

* * * * 

Restoration Urban Ministries, a faith-based shelter and social-service organization, operates out of a former motel near Bradley and Mattis avenues. The group had 17 rooms that were uninhabitable due to code violations.

With the help of Empty Tomb - another faith-based social-service organization - and other area churches, the rooms were renovated to provide a winter home for Safe Haven residents. They moved in right before Thanksgiving.  

Ryan Britton, Restoration's resident director, said Safe Haven members will be allowed to stay at the shelter until May 1 and will be exempt from the self-sufficiency program normally required of Restoration's residents.

However, the Rev. Ervin Williams, executive director of Restoration, did require couples who were planning to live together to get married before moving in.

Because the shelter houses children, a few Safe Haven members who are registered sex offenders were not able to make the move.

Among them was Robert Latham, one of the group's elected council members, who goes by the name "Red."

"It was very hard because we wanted everyone to come," Nash said. "That's one thing about Safe Haven, we don't turn nobody away. But we still consider them as members of Safe Haven, although they're over at another temporary spot."

While organizers work to find other temporary housing for them, some of those members are still living at St. Mary, Royer said.  

Another member who was not able to move to Restoration is George Headley Jr. Headley joined Safe Haven in mid-September after he was unable to find a spot at the TIMES Center or Salvation Army, which both have strict limits on the number of sex offenders they can house at one time.

Headley said he had a temp job driving a forklift at the Solo Cup Co. in Urbana until October 2008, when he was fired after the company found out about his background. He wasn't collecting enough unemployment to keep up with his rent and was evicted from his apartment in February, he said.

He spent nights in a tent in wooded areas of local parks until he met a Safe Haven member at the TIMES Center in September, he said. 

 "They welcome everybody," he said. "They try to help more than the others."

Meanwhile, the Safe Haven residents who made the move to Restoration are using the time to concentrate on the future, Nash said.

"They're out finding jobs and trying this time to prosper, instead of just laying around and using it as a place to stay," he said. "Everybody's more motivated since they've been here, because they sit back and they analyze, like, "˜Man, this could be me in my own apartment.'"

"It's been a good, positive thing."

* * * * 

Libby Tyler, Urbana's community development director, said former Alderwoman Danielle Chynoweth approached the city about possibly allowing Safe Haven to relocate there after their stay at Restoration ends.

While there have yet to be any formal discussions between Urbana and Safe Haven, the community and its supporters will present their plan to city officials in the near future, Tyler said.

Safe Haven has garnered some support from local agencies that aid the homeless.

In August, the community was admitted to the Council of Service Providers to the Homeless, a networking body of government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Jason Greenly, supervisor of the TIMES Center, said that although there is already a variety of services available to the area's homeless population, a community like Safe Haven might be a good fit for people who don't mesh with the existing programs.

The TIMES Center's 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.

"It may be somebody is not in a position at that time to be able to work a program like this," Greenly said. "If there can be a less restrictive program that they can be successful in, then great. I like the idea of diversity of services."

However, it is important for any provider of homeless services to form a good working relationship with the community, he said.

"The only reason TIMES Center functions is because of our relationship with both our local governments and our local community, period," Greenly said.

* * * *

Like that of his community, Nash said his future is uncertain.  

Since moving to Restoration Urban Ministries, he's applied for jobs, but much of his attention has remained focused on Safe Haven, he said.

"It's a good thing to help because maybe I'll be blessed later down the line. That's how I look at it," he said. "But in the same token, I've got to take this time myself, like everybody else, and try to accomplish something with this six months."

Even if he finds a steady job and is able to get a place of his own, he plans to stay involved with Safe Haven. He said wants to do what he can to make sure what happened to his dad doesn't happen to other homeless people.  

By Dan Petrella/ For The News-Gazette

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.