CHAMPAIGN – Officially, the TIMES Center in downtown Champaign is no longer an "emergency" homeless shelter, a change forced by new state funding regulations.
The "E" in its acronym now stands for "empowerment," as in "Transitional Initiatives and Men's Empowerment Services."
The designation has raised eyebrows in the homeless community, but officials say the change won't be dramatic.
The TIMES Center will continue to provide immediate shelter for any man who needs it, up to a capacity of 50. But they will now be placed in a new transitional program designed to help them move toward independence.
"Funding for emergency services no longer exists for us," said Joyce Schmidt, executive director of the TIMES Center. "It was either do this, or don't be funded. That was the alternative we were given. Certainly the community needs a resource here."
As of July 1, the Illinois Department of Human Services no longer funds emergency homeless services open more than 12 hours a day, Schmidt said. The funding must be used instead for transitional programs.
It's part of a national shift in philosophy, said John Schulenburg, division director of development for Provena Behavioral Health, which runs the TIMES Center.
"When you're working with the homeless, the sooner you can get them involved in treatment or improving their life, the better chance they have of returning to independence," he said. "It's truly a good thing, it's just a different thing. But if you're in an emergency, we're still the place to go."
In the past, the center provided 30 nights of shelter to any homeless man needing it. To stay longer, men had to apply to the shelter's two-year transitional housing program and fulfill basic requirements, such as taking classes or looking for a job.
Now, the center offers two levels of transitional services. The new program has no 30-day limit but requires homeless men to save 60 percent of their income and perform 15 hours of community service, unless physical or mental disabilities prevent them from working.
"We just feel that that prepares the guys more for re-entry into the community. They gain more contacts, they know more people, they're more comfortable in society," Schmidt said.
As in the past, they also attend classes or counseling sessions to further their education, improve life skills, address physical or mental disabilities or combat alcohol and drug addictions. The shelter is also offering new "extracurricular" activities, such as art and creative writing classes, and is seeking volunteers who have other skills to share.
"It means to the clients that they can stay longer, that they won't be put out at the end of 30 days because it's a transitional program, not an emergency one," she said. "The funding pays for longer stays."
The center's newsletter said the change should please those who felt the previous 30-day emergency service limit was too short for them to reach independence, but who were also uncomfortable with the two-year transitional program.
Schmidt said it was not a response to criticisms lodged against the center by men who said the staff was too quick to ban individuals without a fair hearing and didn't offer enough services to help them get back on their feet.
"The criticisms in my opinion were unfounded," she said. "With the transitional program, we have the flexibility to offer these services. When you have a revolving door, where people are in and out every day, people don't want to commit to anything. This way, if they can stay longer, they can actually indulge some of their interests."
And when they leave, "they will have savings, they will have what it needs to be independent."
However, men can still be barred from the program if they fail to meet requirements, she said.
"That's still their choice," she said.
That, and the 50-person limit, have generated concerns among some homeless advocates who fear men could be left out in the cold this winter.
Schmidt said the TIMES Center routinely took in up to 60 men per night last winter. But the state's new funding guidelines required the shelter to provide an official building capacity, which was set at 50 by fire officials.
Audrey Jerrolds, case worker for Cunningham Township, noted that the Catholic Worker House, which often houses men unable to get into the TIMES Center, will close during the typically hot month of August for routine maintenance.
Schmidt expects more extended families to step in to help some of the homeless men. One TIMES Center resident said some men who might not otherwise choose to work may hang onto their jobs this fall.
"I think it will have less impact than we may imagine," Schmidt said. "The nice thing is, we're introducing this early when the weather is still warm, when people can make some choices about what they're going to do about the winter."
She said the new program has brought a "sense of community" to the center.
"We've seen a change in the guys already. They are more willing to make an effort," she said.
Resident David Tucker, 56, who's been at the TIMES Center for three months, said the atmosphere is completely different from a year ago when he lived there briefly. Back then, he said, men would secretly drink or "shoot up dope" in the bathroom.
The new policy, he said, "keeps the drug addicts away."
Tucker, a recovering addict with heavily scarred arms, has been clean for seven years, six of which he spent in prison. He's determined to stay that way and build a better life. He's earning money doing roofing and rehabbing jobs and attending classes in life skills and creative writing.
"I get a chance to work here," he said. "It's a chance for me to rejoin society as a paying taxpayer. I'm trying to make the best of this. It's a tough road. I'm hanging in there, and I ain't gonna give up."
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at email@example.com.