Agencies seeking space for homeless

Agencies seeking space for homeless

CHAMPAIGN – December and its freezing temperatures are going to be here in about 15 minutes, by Carol Timms' estimation. And that means there's no time to waste to put together a new emergency homeless center.

About 25 representatives of social service agencies gathered Thursday in a hastily called meeting to address the capacity problems all the shelters are already feeling before the cold weather has struck. Few options will be left unexplored as Timms, chair of the TIMES Center advisory group, handed out assignments at the conclusion of Thursday's two-hour meeting.

"Just because it's hard to do doesn't mean we shouldn't do it," Timms said as people began to question elements of the plan.

Representatives will be fanning out to contact owners and managers of a cross-section of buildings, including churches, dormitories, vacant commercial buildings, gymnasiums, the Urbana Civic Center and even, and ironically, the Champaign Park District's Springer Cultural Center, the site of a highly polarized and acrimonious controversy some 15 years ago when homeless advocates sought to turn it into a homeless center.

As discussion evolved into broader homelessness problems, Timms insisted the efforts will be focused on strictly emergency situations.

"We're talking about life-threatening situations here," she said.

The TIMES Center had 48 men there Thursday. Its capacity is at an unbending 50 people, by order of the state fire marshal, said Executive Director Joyce Schmidt.

At the Restoration Urban Ministries, "We're already turning away people," said the Rev. Ervin Williams.

At the Catholic Worker House, the bedrooms are full, two couches are being slept on, and they're finding people sleeping under the porch, said a representative.

Dorothy David, the city of Champaign's Neighborhood Services director, said she would investigate how the problem might be addressed using the model of the city's disaster plans. Both cities have an established structure for responding to events such as tornadoes, fires and power outages, with teams of people and shelters that can be called on in those emergencies.

Using that kind of model, Timms said she would explore the idea of creating a list of institutions – religious, government or private – that might be willing to make space and volunteers available over a block of time, say two weeks, so that the entire winter calendar is covered by someone. Buses could be made available to take overflow from the shelters, or other central locations, to the emergency shelter on assignment for that period.

Champaign police officer Bruce Ramsey, also a member of the TIMES Center advisory board, said he had received a favorable reception from the Mass Transit District and Illini Swallow bus lines to have a bus made available somewhere close to the TIMES Center.

Ramsey said the police department even makes its lobby available on a limited basis already and assists the homeless where possible. It's in the community's interest to take the problem seriously, he said. The alternative means people breaking into places they shouldn't be just to stay warm.

Still others at the meeting were assigned to check into the ability to get access to state funds available for emergency sheltering of women and children in hotels.

Several of those present said they were encouraged by the agency responses and the interest shown in addressing a growing problem that needs more than a temporary fix.

"I'd like to remind people we started as an emergency shelter," said Kathy Sims, executive director of the Center for Women in Transition. "Look where we are now."

The center starts construction on its third home Monday.

The group intends to meet again at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Mental Health Center, 202 E. Park St., Champaign.

You can reach J. Philip Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at pbloomer@news-gazette.com.

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