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Safe Haven residents seek other options

By Dan Petrella/CU CitizenAccess "” Behind an annex art studio on the University of Illinois campus sits an 8-foot-by-8-foot wooden structure, lying on its back and filled with dead leaves and dirt. Not long ago, some hoped this small, cabin-like shelter would serve as a model for a new way to house some of the area's homeless.

A group of UI architecture students built the prototype for Safe Haven, a group of homeless people who formed a self-governing community to serve as an alternative to sleeping on the street or in one of the area's traditional shelters. The group's goal was to build a settlement of these micro-shelters somewhere in the Champaign-Urbana area.

But a little more than a year after it formed as a tent community in the backyard of the Catholic Worker House in Champaign, Safe Haven has disbanded. Organizers and supporters said the group's members lost energy and didn't have the "financial or human capacity" to establish a more permanent community.

"It's kind of disappointing because there was a lot of hope there," said Ingemar Johnson, 44, a former Safe Haven member who now lives at Restoration Urban Ministries, a transitional housing program near Bradley and Mattis avenues in west Champaign. "I had no hope until I ran into the Safe Haven program."

Johnson, who was living on the streets when he couldn't find a place with friends or family, met members of Safe Haven late last summer while eating dinner at the TIMES Center, a homeless shelter near downtown Champaign, and they invited him to join. At the time, the group was staying at St. Mary Catholic Church, where it moved after the city shut down its tent encampment at the Catholic Worker House due to zoning and safety concerns.

After staying at St. Mary for 100 days, first in tents and then inside the church's parish center, most of Safe Haven's members moved to Restoration Urban Ministries, which agreed to let the group stay until May 1. At that point, they had the option of enrolling in the shelter's program, which includes a regimen of classes and religious activities, or moving on.

Of the 41 people who arrived on Nov. 15, only six enrolled in the program, and two more stayed on as renters, office manager Linda Kramer said.

"All of those (who enrolled) are doing very well," she said. "We would have loved to have more."

Valentino Plaza, 55, is another one of those who stayed, along with his 74-year-old mother. Before joining Safe Haven, they lived in their car. They'd been living with his grandmother, but when she died, they found out she owed back property taxes on her home that they couldn't afford to pay.

"I really cared about Safe Haven," Plaza said. "If it weren't for Safe Haven, I wouldn't be here" at Restoration Urban Ministries.

He said group members began losing their sense of community and stopped communicating as well when they moved out of the St. Mary parish center, where everyone slept on the floor in one room, and into the former motel rooms where Restoration houses its residents.

"We were like a family there," he said. "That closeness wasn't there anymore."

Meanwhile, efforts to find a more permanent location for Safe Haven's community failed to gain traction.

After Champaign officials made it clear that the group's micro-shelter idea wouldn't be allowed under the city's zoning and building codes, Safe Haven organizers met with Urbana officials early this year to discuss opportunities in that city.

Urbana laws also prohibit the type of housing the group was proposing because the individual units would have lacked eating and bathing facilities. But city staff tried to work with the group to find alternatives, such as a dormitory-style shelter.

"We were very open to finding a model that would work by also meet the codes," said Libby Tyler, Urbana's community development director.

Abby Harmon, a UI landscape architecture graduate student and Safe Haven advocate, said the group was pleased with the city's response.

"From our standpoint, they were wonderful," she said.

But the group wasn't able to turn those ideas into a reality.

"What we didn't have was the financial or human capacity to do it at that point," Harmon said. "The capacity of the organization wasn't great enough yet. "¦ It's a difficult thing to get anything going, especially something that's outside of the norm."

After their time was up at Restoration Urban Ministries, the members who didn't stay went their separate ways.

Wayne Conrad, 55, one of the group's earliest members, moved out of Restoration in March and was renting a room in a Champaign house. But when his rent went up, he couldn't afford it on the money he makes as a home health care worker.

He now lives at the TIMES Center, where he said he's the only former Safe Haven member.

He occasionally sees some of the group's former members at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in downtown Champaign, where he volunteers daily, but Conrad said he's lost touch with most people.

"Most of them, I don't know where they are," he said. "I hope most of us did progress. I hope most of us got sane and sober and off of drugs, found apartments, jobs."

Johnson and Plaza have also lost contact with most of the group as well, but estimated that half of its former members are back on the streets.

Janet Rasmussen is pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, which hosted a coalition of about a dozen religious organizations that supported Safe Haven.Although the group didn't survive as a self-sustaining organization, she said it did have a positive impact on the community.

"It made people more aware of the issues surrounding homelessness," Rasmussen said. "It made us begin to imagine some new paradigms."

Most importantly, she said, Safe Haven provided people a warm place to spend the winter , through its agreement with Restoration Urban Ministries.

"As someone in the group said, no one died on the street," Rasmussen said.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.