Praise for shelter aired

CHAMPAIGN – On a cold Saturday morning in December, Charles Doty got up from his cot at the TIMES Center and was shocked by the face that stared back at him in the bathroom mirror.

His eyes were nearly swollen shut. His face, neck and feet were full of fluid. He sat down to have a cup of coffee, thinking he might feel better. A staff member for the homeless shelter hurried over, saying "We've got to get you out of here."

Doty remembers thinking, "Where am I going? I got no place to go."

Fifteen minutes later, center Director Joyce Schmidt arrived to take him to the hospital. It was her day off. Another staff member tracked down Doty's daughter in Rantoul. Two hours later, she was at his bedside.

Doctors told Doty he had congestive heart failure and would have died if he'd waited another 20 minutes to get to the hospital.

Doty and others take issue with recent complaints about the TIMES Center – that the staff is insensitive and too quick to ban individuals for sometimes arbitrary reasons.

"I couldn't have asked to be treated any better. The employees were super to me," said Doty, who's now living in a subsidized apartment.

The TIMES Center gives any homeless man 30 nights of shelter with no obligation. If he wants to stay longer, he must apply to the center's transitional housing program and agree to a plan designed to get him back on his feet.

Failure to make progress can get an individual banned from the men's shelter, and that's where many of the complaints come in.

Charles Vogel, 48, said he was temporarily banned last fall while he was still taking physical therapy for a hip injury. He and others complained that the staff does little to help residents once the initial paperwork is completed.

"Once you come there and they process you, they're done with you," Vogel said.

Vogel, who has since found a job and an apartment in Urbana, said homeless people often have little or no motivation.

"They feel like the world's against them, and they've lost everything," he said. "I know you can't hold these guys' hands, but you can tell who wants to help themselves."

Among other things, he suggests a daily session to help men look through want ads and apply for jobs.

Assistant Director Ken Turner said the staff "bends over backwards" to help the residents achieve their goals. But they have to show some initiative, too, keeping regular appointments with case managers, he said.

Transitional case manager Suzanne Hunter said the program "will help people, if they utilize it the way they're supposed to," she said. "I'm not going to do all the work. They have to meet me halfway."

Still, she keeps close tabs on her former clients. Once a week or so, Hunter visits Paul Birt, 62, to help him with his bills or take him to the grocery store. The two talk on the phone "practically every day," she said.

"He has nobody else, and he's a senior citizen," Hunter said. "Just because they leave here, I don't forget about them. They still exist for me."

Birt first showed up at the TIMES Center two years ago, homeless, sick and broke. He'd been fired from his job at Illini Recycling after arthritis rendered his left arm useless, one of a multitude of health problems he's suffered in recent years.

He lost his "home" – an office in a garage at work – along with his job. He camped out near some railroad tracks for a month before someone took him to the TIMES Center.

After a few ups and downs, Birt eventually got back on his feet. The TIMES Center helped him get an ID, apply for Social Security disability and save enough money to get a place of his own. The staff also collected more than $1,000 to help pay for his surgeries.

"When I got in there, I didn't have nothin', nothin' except what I had on. They helped me out with my clothes, they helped me in all kinds of ways," Birt said.

Inside his tidy one-bedroom apartment are a portrait of Birt as a baby and a smattering of American Indian figures, one of his passions.

"I'm proud of it," he said.

Birt admits he wasn't always the perfect client. He's had ongoing battles with alcohol, and was banned from the center for 30 days at one point for drinking beer – a no-no with his medications.

But he dutifully attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs while he was at the center. "I didn't like it, but I went," he said.

He said some of the men don't like the 10 p.m. curfew or other rules, but they're clearly posted for all to see.

"They like to go out and party all night. You can't party all night and freeload, too," he said. "Everyone has to abide by the rules."

Doty said those who complain "are the people who don't want anything. They just want a place where they can lie down and sleep and just walk the streets all day. They're not concerned with trying to get out and find themselves a job. Then they complain when somebody tells them they got to go for lack of progress because they're not trying."

Doty, 58, a former appliance repairman, has been unable to work since 1992. He came north last fall from Mayfield, Ky., in search of his two grown children, whom he hadn't seen for five years. He arrived at the TIMES Center on Nov. 1 with little except the clothes on his back.

Two weeks later, he was hospitalized briefly for his diabetes and high blood pressure. Then came the December episode. After recuperating at the TIMES Center, Doty found a subsidized apartment at Washington Square in early February. Schmidt and others helped him apply for the apartment, track down his birth certificate and supplied him with bags of groceries, kitchen utensils, furniture, blankets and sheets.

Without the center, he said, "I'd have probably wound up lying in a gutter somewhere, dead."

Goal setting key feature of TIMES Center agenda

The TIMES Center, or Transitional Initiatives and Men's Emergency Services, offers any homeless man 30 nights of shelter with no obligation.

Residents have 21 days to apply for the transitional housing program. As part of that, they fill out a self-evaluation and work with the staff to come up with goals.

Goals are tailored to the individual but often involve getting a job, furthering their education, seeking substance abuse or mental health counseling, dealing with health or financial problems or finding permanent housing.

A transition team determines what requirements the resident has to fulfill before he can be considered for the transitional program. Getting a job is not a requirement, but staff members say anyone able to work should try.

If the 20-bed transitional housing wing is full, the resident is put on a waiting list and stays in the emergency shelter. But he must continue to work on his goals – filling out five to 10 job applications per week, for instance, enrolling in a class, or attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Those who fail to make progress can be banned for 30 days or more.

Residents can stay in the transitional program for up to two years, but most men move on within 12 months. They must pay a monthly fee based on their income – up to $150 – and must save 60 percent of their net income after that.

– Source: TIMES Center

You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at jwurth@news-gazette.com.

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