Women's shelter use up in February, still below capacity
CHAMPAIGN — Single homeless women who need a bed for the night out of the cold can probably find one at Austin's Place.
Since the local emergency shelter for single women opened for the 2013-14 winter season Dec. 15, it's been running below capacity with beds to spare.
"We had only one night when we were at our max," says Cathy Strick, co-chairwoman of Austin's Place's steering committee.
Based at First United Methodist Church, Champaign, Austin's Place has space for eight women a night — though they must be women arriving alone, without children, spouses or boyfriends.
For those last two weeks of December, the shelter averaged two women a night, Strick said.
In January, the shelter averaged just over four women a night, and February has been averaging five women a night, she said.
Strick says the shelter has served 27 different women this winter season, but she believes there may be more women who could be using the beds.
She recalls asking one woman guest in December, "Where is everybody?"
Perhaps women don't know about Austin's Place, the woman told her.
Set to close for the current winter season at the end of March, Austin's Place runs on a small army of volunteers.
That includes 75 people who take turns staying overnight with homeless guests and another 30 drivers who take women to the church from another agency — the Center for Women in Transition — where women are screened for a night's lodging, Strick said.
To stay at the shelter, women are first screened for any medical conditions for which they might need to be hospitalized, and they must show a picture ID and identify the medications they're taking, she said.
In the morning, the drivers take the women to a few places in the community where they can eat and shower and/or keep warm: the TIMES Center, the Illinois Terminal Building and to the library if they want to go there, she said.
For a couple of nights in February when the weather was terrible, five women were put up in hotels for the night so volunteers wouldn't need to make the trip to the church, Strick said.
"We just had the women go to the center and we had taxicabs take them to the hotels," she said.
Strick said she doesn't know why the eight beds don't all get used, but sometimes homeless women are with men or children and don't want to split up. Some women just don't want to be with other people.
"There are plenty of organizations and places that know about us," she said.
Mary Wallace, director of development at the Center for Women in Transition, said the beds at Austin's Place are much-needed and have been in higher demand this winter.
"I feel the word has been out a bit better about Austin's Place, and that, coupled with the colder weather, means the beds have been better utilized at Austin's Place, so women know where to go," she adds.
But there are many factors in the choice to seek shelter, Wallace says.
"Sometimes people are out, and have reasons not to want to be in," she adds.
First United Methodist Church supplies the facilities for Austin's Place, along with the use of its van, and the shelter also receives donations from the community, Strick said.
Austin's Place leaders expect to have about $6,000 left over at the end of March, and it will be used in some way to help the women guests from this winter season, she said.
One possibility is to use money for rent assistance for those who have jobs and are able to obtain rental housing, Strick said. With just a little more than a month before the shelter closes for the season, she said, guests are being encouraged to make connections with other agencies in the community that may be able to help them, she said.
About Austin's Place
1. This is the shelter's seventh winter season of operation.
2. Opened originally as the Emergency Shelter for Homeless Women, the name was changed to honor Austin Cloyd, who grew up in Champaign-Urbana and died in the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007.
3. Donate, volunteer, more information: shelter-austinsplace.weebly.com