DANVILLE — As the previous director of the Boys and Girls Club of Danville, Rickey Williams Jr. worked with hundreds of impoverished families in town.
But he had never seen the face of homelessness in his hometown until three summers ago, when two such faces turned up in the club's backyard.
Some club members had noticed a man and woman loitering around a baseball diamond in Garfield Park, where the club is located. The couple's bedding and sparse belongings indicated they were living in the dugout.
Surely the kids were mistaken, thought Williams, who had only heard about Vermilion County's growing homeless problem until then. He was shocked to discover that the pair — a married couple, who looked to be in their early 30s — had been living in the dugout after losing their income and the place where they were staying.
"The husband said they had moved here from out-of-state so he could start a job," recalled Williams, who made sure the couple got a hot meal each day of the 10 days they remained at the park and a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter to eat over the weekend.
"He filled out the paperwork and started the job," continued Williams, who is also a Danville alderman. "But after a couple of weeks, he was laid off along with a lot of other people."
The couple didn't have the money to get back home. The man looked for another job in the area but hadn't found anything yet.
The man could have gotten a bed at the men's homeless shelter in Danville, he told Williams. But his wife couldn't get into the women's shelter across town.
"He said, 'I love my wife. I can't leave her to fend for herself.'"
New faces of homelessness
The couple's story is all too familiar, said officials from social service and governmental agencies, churches and other organizations working to provide housing and a wide range of other services to the homeless population in the county.
"The face of homelessness has changed," said Dee Ann Ryan, executive director of the Vermilion County Mental Health 708 Board. "It's not just transient men. There are a lot more families now who because of the economy or bad decisions have fallen on hard times. They lose their job, end up having their utilities shut off and being evicted from their apartment or having their home foreclosed on."
"There are also more homeless teenagers," added Tricia Keith, the county's truant officer and homeless coordinator. "Our runaway numbers are huge. Some kids are kicked out of their homes if there's a drug or alcohol problem or a pregnancy or they're not following the rules. And there are times when you have an older child, and the parents think they should fend for themselves."
However, there's no emergency or transitional shelter for families in the county, officials said. So if couples with children, single fathers with children, single mothers with more than six children and teenage boys under 18 don't have a friend or relative who's willing or able to take them in, they likely end up on the street.
"The influx of families and individuals who have no place to go is increasing," said Cheryl Thornsbrough, an administrative assistant at CrossRoads Christian Church in Danville. "People are having to live out in the woods. They're having a bonfire all night and sleeping in tents because there's no place for them to go."
This comes at a time when the federal government has been moving away from funding emergency-shelter programs in favor of transitional programs, added Sharon Sawka, social services director at the Salvation Army of Danville.
"But if a family in crisis comes to me, and it's 4 degrees below zero, they need to get out of the elements and have a safe place to lay their head," she said. "They don't have time to wait to get into a transitional shelter. If they wait, they could freeze to death."
Now members of the Vermilion County Continuum of Care Committee including the Salvation Army, 708 board, Crosspoint Human Services, East Central Illinois Community Action Agency, Danville Housing Authority, city of Danville's community development division and the county's Regional Office of Education are putting together a steering committee to address the problem. They plan to hold the first meeting at 10:30 a.m. March 7 at Crosspoint at the Y, 301 N. Hazel St., Danville.
Members said they welcome participation from faith-based groups, businesses and others.
"This is a community problem, and we can't ignore it any more," Ryan said. "We also know we can't depend on the federal or state government to solve it. We needed to get like-minded, concerned people together to do a needs assessment. I think we can come up with some creative solutions."
Hard to count
Local officials aren't sure how many homeless people are in Vermilion County. A few measures are in place, but they're not all-encompassing.
For the last few years, local officials have been conducting a street sweep in Danville in late January to count the homeless population.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates that communities take the "point-in-time" survey every two years, but some do it more frequently. Homeless providers use the data collected on unsheltered and sheltered clients to make long-range plans for delivering services and document the need for grant funding.
During the most recent search on Tuesday night, officials didn't find any homeless people out on the street, although they did come across bedding and other evidence that people had been living in some abandoned buildings.
During the January 2012 count, they found seven unsheltered clients and 94 sheltered, including people in shelters, those with hotel vouchers and those who were in permanent housing on that night.
Schools also have started to count homeless students, many of whom aren't included in the point-in-time survey unless they're living in a shelter or motel or found on the street on the night of the count.
In November 2011, Vermilion County schools counted 250 homeless, said Keith, the county truant officer. Students came from all but four of the 12 districts — Armstrong Township, Catlin, Jamaica and Westville.
That number increased to 364 in June 2012 and included students from all districts except for Jamaica. It decreased slightly to 326 in November and included students from all districts except for Catlin.
The schools' definition of homeless includes anyone who doesn't have a permanent place to sleep at night, Keith said.
"So if they're 'couch-hopping' — moving from friend's house to friend's house — they fall in that category."
But officials don't believe those numbers reflect the extent of the problem.
"Some people may look at the point-in-time count and say, 'Wow. Those numbers are low,' But they're only from one 24-hour-period. We know they're far from the truth," said Linda McLaughlin, care coordinator of the Domestic Violence and Transitional Shelter at Crosspoint at the Y.
The numbers also don't include the people who are bunked with someone else but have no permanent dwelling and those on the street who don't want to be found.
"It appears to me that we could easily have 1,200 to 1,500 people in the county in various homeless situations," said John Dreher, Danville's community development manager. He based the estimate on data he compiled in the city's revised consolidated plan for 2010-2015, including the number of people that homeless providers served and turned away.
When providers get the call — someone has lost his home because of financial hardship, a fire, divorce, domestic violence, health or mental health problems, substance abuse, incarceration or another reason — they call the two local shelters.
The Danville Rescue Mission, at 834 N. Bowman Ave., provides emergency and transitional housing to men over the age of 18 who are drug- and alcohol-free. It can house 50 people, although one dorm with five beds is temporarily closed while work is being done.
Clients can stay on an emergency basis for three days. The transitional program allows them to extend their stay if they sign up for housing and food stamps, attend an on-site drug- and alcohol-free program and take other steps aimed at moving them toward self-sufficiency.
In 2012, the mission served 212 men.
"Some of them were served more than once," Executive Director Ted Parker said.
Last year, the mission may have had to turn people away when it stopped intakes temporarily in order to clean sleeping quarters thoroughly, Parker said. But lately, it has been housing an average of 25 men a night and hasn't had to turn anyone away due to a lack of space.
But, "if single fathers call, we tell them they have to leave their children somewhere else, so that makes it very difficult for them," Parker said.
Women and their children can stay at the Domestic Violence and Transitional Shelter, at 201 N. Hazel St. However, it's a long-term program that helps clients get back on their feet, not an emergency shelter. And it can't take boys over 13 because clients and their families use community restrooms and shower facilities.
Also, only six of the 32 rooms are family units. Each of the two largest units can accommodate a maximum of five children — and an infant or toddler who can fit in a Pack 'n Play — before exceeding the fire-code limit.
Occasionally, the shelter will hear from mothers with seven children, or one with fewer kids, but the family units are full.
"Those are the calls that break our hearts," said Cher Pollock, supervisor of clinical services.
During the 2012 fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, the shelter housed 213 women and children (transitional and domestic violence), but had to turn away 62 women and 96 children.
"Even if we had the beds, we'd have to put them on the wall or ceiling," McLaughin added. "Sometimes you wish you could do that."
If people can't go to a shelter, they call the Salvation Army, which sets aside a small amount of emergency shelter funds each year. In 2012, that amount was $13,000.
"It goes very fast," said Sawka, who used the money to put 40 families — which included anywhere from one to six members — in a motel room for several days. But she had to turn 163 families away.
In 2011, she was able to help 32 families but had to had to turn away 74.
"Sometimes, you have the money, but you can't find a hotel," Sawka said, explaining that the ones that offer cheaper rates to homeless clients also offer weekly rates to out-of-town workers and occasionally are full when she calls. "They'll say, 'We'll have a room tomorrow,' but tomorrow's too late."
And not all motels will accept the homeless, providers said.
"There's still that stereotype: I don't want those kind of people, and that's unfair," Keith said.
Organizations such as the American Red Cross and the community action agency; churches; and individuals also provide emergency housing when they can. But if motel rooms are full and funds are exhausted, providers said all they can do is call around to the shelters in Champaign County.
"For some, even that's not an option," Sawka said, adding they may have no money for transportation.
Working toward solutions
At least a couple of groups outside of the Continuum of Care Committee have already begun working on creating more local options for the underserved.
A Salvation Army advisory board is exploring the idea of using some of its legacy funds to boost homeless services. Some members suggested using it for a family emergency shelter or one for teens and young adults up to ages 21 or 22.
If the agency pursued the idea, it would try to partner with an agency with housing expertise to oversee that and the daily operations.
"This is a brand-new idea that we're just beginning to discuss," Dreher, a board member, said, adding it was suggested a couple of weeks ago. "But that money has been well-invested and growing, and the consideration is, we should put it to work to help people. The thought was, we could fill one of the niches in the homeless shelter situation here."
Dreher pointed out that while older male teens can go to the men's shelter, it might not be the safest environment for them.
"So often those young people who are out there have already been through some really grizzly circumstances. That's why they're out there," he said.
Also, another group of residents — united through Love INC (Love in the Name of Christ) and/or their interest in helping the homeless — has been researching establishing a program modeled on Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign and looking for a building in Danville for about seven months.
The group envisions bringing together area churches and other volunteers to provide emergency and transitional housing to families and individuals, meals, laundry and cooking facilities. The program also would provide case management and referrals to local agencies for services; classes ranging from debt recovery and financial management to cooking and home ownership; substance abuse recovery; employment and spiritual counseling, among other things.
"What I've found in my experience is folks will model the same behavior they've seen all of their lives," said Thornsbrough, who has worked with homeless and displaced families since the 1970s. "If that's why they're homeless, they need different skills to make better choices. We want to give them the tools and support ... so that they can change their lives and break the cycle of poverty and homelessness."
"It's not just emergency housing," said Alderman Williams, who's also involved in the effort. "You're truly changing people's lives. Some of these people have very little self-worth. They believe no one cares about them. You're showing them that God cares and you care. You're giving them dignity and skills and empowering them so they can go out and work and become productive members of society."