Stories of families living in cars, homeless schoolchildren and waiting lists at shelters have dogged Champaign County social services providers for years.
Efforts to establish a new emergency family shelter might be moving ahead finally, spurred by rising numbers of homeless and new studies of community housing needs.
The United Way of Champaign County has put together a group to create a place where homeless families can stay together on an emergency basis until they find space in a transitional housing program or other long-term shelter. Currently, there's nothing like that in the community, and some families wind up on the streets, officials said.
"It's been a concern and a need in the community for a long time. We feel that something finally needs to be done to address the issue," said Beverley Baker, director of community impact for the United Way of Champaign County.
For one, need appears to be growing. The United Way and other agencies have seen a surge in requests for help during the recession, Baker said. And some shelters are full, with waiting lists.
The Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education in Rantoul has seen an increase over the last 18 months, said Regina Parnell, coordinator for student services.
It's provided services to 336 homeless schoolchildren in the county since the start of the school year, and had to find emergency accommodations for six families – eight adults and 20 children. That's up from four families with five adults and 12 kids a year ago at this time, said Barb Daly, assistant regional superintendent.
"We've taken people out of campsites, off of highway rest stops. People come in off the train and have nowhere to go. We're talking truly an emergency," Daly said.
Little for families
The community has several homeless shelters, including the Center for Women in Transition, which serves women and children (under age 14); the TIMES Center for men in downtown Champaign; the Salvation Army Stepping Stone Shelter for men; and Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign, which does take in families. The Salvation Army also has a few homes for families. But they're all designed to be longer-term transitional programs that help people move back into society, not drop-in shelters, officials said.
"You need the emergency shelter before you can even look at transitional," Daly said.
During the winter, the TIMES Center and Stepping Stone try to accommodate men who need emergency shelter, Baker said. And Austin's Place, an overnight shelter for women, is open from Jan. 1 to mid-April at First United Methodist Church in Champaign. But neither takes in couples, or single moms or dads with children.
"If you're a single mother with a high school-age son, 14 or older, you're not allowed in the women's shelters. You have to choose to have housing for yourself, and leave your son fending for himself, or you'll be out there with him," Parnell said. "You do have two-parent households who come into difficulties. Do you split the family so everybody can be sheltered, or do you stay together?"
Daly's office usually arranges for homeless families to stay at a local hotel for a few days, then puts them in touch with the Center for Women in Transition or Restoration. The money comes from a $6,000 United Way basic emergency services grant run by Daly's office and the C-U Schools Foundation.
"We give them some relief for a few days to put a plan in place," Daly said.
The problem is that the Center for Women in Transition is often full, and Restoration, a Christian-based program, isn't always a good fit, Baker said. Restoration does intake interviews only on certain days, though it's tried to accommodate families whenever it can, Daly and Baker said.
'Nowhere to put their heads down'
What kinds of families seek emergency shelter? Those stranded when substandard apartments close suddenly, such as Gateway Studios in 2009 or, this winter, the Cherry Orchard Apartments near Rantoul. Families being evicted after falling behind on the rent. Families passing through town trying to get to a relative in another city. Or families who are "couch surfing," staying with relatives or friends but wearing out their welcome.
One family arrived on the train from Chicago with nowhere to go, asked a police officer for help and was referred to the United Way, which contacted Daly's office. She found them a hotel room.
"They literally had nowhere to put their heads down at night and stay safe and warm, or their children," Daly said. "Every single case is different, and complicated."
The United Way group met for the first time last month. It includes representatives of the major shelters and two cities, working as a subgroup of the local Council of Service Providers to the Homeless.
Baker said the group doesn't want to duplicate services already available, but provide temporary emergency shelter and link up with other community resources.
"That's the major hole in homeless services," said John Sullivan, executive director of the Center for Women in Transition.
As for who would run it, what it would look like, and how it would be paid for, no decisions have been made. The group still has to define the need, find a building or site and pull together funding.
"It's something that we're going to continue to pursue aggressively throughout the spring," Baker said, but it's unlikely to open before next winter at the earliest.
A new report from a University of Illinois action-research seminar class, "Community-Driven Homeless Housing Programs: Best Practices," offers some advice. Co-instructors Abby Harmon and Sang Lee and their undergraduates studied housing in Champaign-Urbana and pinpointed three areas of need, including an emergency family shelter. The report used data from the annual survey of the homeless population by the Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care, which documented 594 homeless people, including 380 children.
The class tried to outline solutions, with case studies of two successful family shelters in similar-size communities, Evansville, Ind., and Ithaca, N.Y. There were common elements to their success, the authors said.
Both used diverse sources of funding, from municipal, state and federal governments but also churches, individuals, businesses, the Red Cross and United Way. They had strong partnerships with health clinics, universities, city governments and other shelters. They provided home-like facilities, with private rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and laundry. And, working with community partners, they offered valuable resources for families, such as employment counseling and life skills workshops.
The report called on the cities of Champaign and Urbana to lead a collaborative effort for a family shelter by appropriating funds, finding community partners, contacting developers and staying involved with the shelter's day-to-day operations. The class presented the report to the Champaign city council and the Urbana Economic Development Commission in December.
Harmon was encouraged by the interest expressed by city officials, specifically in the family shelter, and by the reaction from the Council of Service Providers.
"There was a concerted effort ... to really start talking about how we can get it done, which is different from just talking about it. I really got the sense that this is going somewhere," said Harmon, who was also active in supporting the former tent community known as Safe Haven.
Local government efforts
The UI report was timed, in part, to coincide with a comprehensive regional housing study commissioned by the cities and due out this spring, which also is expected to spotlight the need for a family shelter.
John Schneider, grants manager for Urbana, and Kerri Spear, neighborhood programs manager for Champaign, said the study is intended to help the cities understand housing needs and affordability across low-income groups, looking at the overall housing market from homeless shelters to rental property to home ownership.
It's part of a series of actions taken by the cities and county to address homelessness following the Gateway closing, including an emergency tenant relocation plan and a comprehensive resource guide listing places where families in similar situations can get help. Local governments also provide rental assistance to families, totaling $175,000 this year.
Schneider, who with Spear is part of the group organized by the United Way, said the UI report provides "good ideas" on how the cities and other agencies can collaborate on a family shelter or other housing needs. Baker said the group would be studying those examples, and others. Any program has to be tailored to local needs, officials said.
"There are a lot of different options and models out there," Daly said.
Money and other challenges
Documenting the need is tricky. Spear has been trying since last March, with little success, to get an accurate count of homeless families, asking shelters to keep track of those they're unable to help. Families in those situations have more pressing issues than filling out a survey, she said, and it's nearly impossible to track them down later.
And people don't necessarily call if they know a particular shelter isn't designed for dads with children, for example, Sullivan said.
"I do know there are families out there," said Spear, who volunteers at Austin's Place. "It's just how many. You have to be able to show the number and document the need."
Other challenges: finding the proper site and a stable source of ongoing funding.
"Nobody really has the space to do this at the moment," Sullivan said. It may have to come down to an individual or business donating or financing a building, he said, as obtaining a grant could take years.
A family shelter also presents logistical challenges because it involves men, women and children, added Jason Greenly, supervisor of the TIMES Center. A big room with lots of beds is fine for adults, but not young children or infants, Daly agreed.
Sullivan said he'd love to see a home-style environment, rather than "warehousing people." Children who are homeless are dealing with the destruction of their social support system, and "the more homey you can make it, the batter it is for a family."
Typically, emergency shelter involves a short stay, 60 days or less, Sullivan said. But it's also crucial to provide a stepping stone to transitional or affordable housing, he said.
All of that takes money, which Schneider sees as the biggest hurdle. Social services agencies dependent on state funding are already under stress and may not be in a position to take on another long-term obligation, he said. But federal funding, which already provides money for supportive housing and homeless prevention programs, may be an option, he said. And he noted that the examples in the UI report relied on a mix of funding, including private.
"We have to have a community that wants to do this," Greenly said, not just service providers and government but "churches, citizens, everyone's going to have to pull together to want to make this happen."