CHAMPAIGN — The first year the Rev. Terry Strom spent a cold February night in a box in downtown Champaign to raise money for the homeless, it rained.
And he told himself, never again.
Yet there he was again last month, spending another cold night in a box for the second annual One Winter Night fund-raiser.
The pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Urbana, Strom says he had two sleeping bags with him, and it was still hard to spend the night on concrete. And he felt vulnerable out there to passers-by. But he learned a lot from this experience.
"It made an impact on my life to think what people go through every day knowing they're going to get up and not take a hot shower," he recalls.
This year's One Winter Night, held overnight Feb. 1-2, benefitted C-U at Home, a fledgling organization devoted to finding homes for the most vulnerable homeless people living on the streets of Champaign-Urbana.
The organization holds its fundraisers to raise awareness about homelessness, along with money for its cause, and it's attracted increasing community interest.
One Winter Night 2013, held both downtown and on the University of Illinois Quad, raised $57,000, about twice as much as last year's event.
Another C-U at Home fundraiser, a grocery cart push called One Summer Day, will be held again this year on June 29.
Despite its eye-catching fundraisers, not much is known about C-U at Home's charitable status, how it's using the money it raises, and its methods for addressing homelessness.
Following is a closer look:
C-U at Home identifies itself as a local chapter of 100,000 Homes, a national movement in 187 communities working to find homes for 100,000 vulnerable homeless people by 2014.
Both 100,000 Homes and C-U at Home believe in "housing first," described by 100,000 Homes as providing a homeless person with a place to live first, so nobody has to deal with issues such as substance abuse, mental illness or health problems without the safety or stability of a home.
C-U at Home was launched in June 2011 with "me and a backpack," said Executive Director Melany Jackson, who holds a Master of Divinity degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.
Jackson said her idea for starting C-U at Home came from learning about the 100,000 Homes initiative and reading "Radical," a book by David Platt questioning comfortable notions among Christians and challenging them to really follow the Gospel.
Jackson sold all her belongings, with the exception of her car, and made her home at Restoration Urban Ministries, Champaign, for the first 18 months, she said.
Why not just work with an existing agency serving the homeless?
The people C-U at Home serves are the most vulnerable of the homeless — those living on the streets and likely to die there — and other agencies weren't helping them, Jackson said.
C-U at Home has housed 10 people so far. It is currently supporting five of these formerly homeless people in four houses — two houses it has the use of rent-free, and two where it pays below-market rent, Jackson said.
The organization covers all the expenses of the people it houses for a year and connects them to support services such as health care and a six-month drug and alcohol rehabilitation in Springfield if needed, Jackson said. C-U at Home volunteers provide transportation and mentoring to help with the transition from street to home life, she said.
"Our agreement is 12 months we'll help you, 12 months, whatever help you need," Jackson said.
Sometimes the needs are as simple as just someone to sit and listen, said John Smith, president of the C-U at Home board.
And sometimes it's the little things people with homes and jobs take for granted.
"We have a 53-year-old man who got a prescription for the first time in his life last week," he said.
So far, all the placements in single-family homes have been for men, but there have been women and children helped among about 20 others the organization has helped with such things as short-term emergency stays and assistance moving from shelters, Jackson said.
C-U at Home is a Christian organization but will work with anyone who wants to volunteer, regardless of faith, and will serve anyone who fits its criteria, also regardless of faith, Jackson said.
"Hypothermia, loss of body parts, that's not a good thing," she said.
Not a charity
C-U at Home hopes to become a nonprofit organization, but it isn't one yet. Jackson said an application was filed this past July with the Internal Revenue Service to make C-U at Home a 501(c)(3) charity. The IRS won't comment on a pending application, IRS spokesman Michael Devine said.
Donations to C-U at Home are still tax-deductible, however, under an arrangement with the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, which is controlling C-U at Home's finances while it remains without a charitable designation of its own.
The foundation accepts donations on C-U at Home's behalf and reviews its bills, says foundation President and CEO Joan Dixon. Then it reimburses the organization for those expenses considered to be legitimate charitable expenditures.
The foundation also provides C-U at Home with financial reports, Dixon said.
The arrangement "does not make them a nonprofit, but it does allow them to accept donations," she said.
Jackson said C-U at Home currently has $72,000, according to its latest report from the foundation last week.
The organization started a new fiscal year Jan. 1 and plans to spend most of its money this year on housing and support, but hasn't finalized a new budget yet. That was awaiting totals from the February fundraiser.
"Our whole year is dictated by what we make at One Winter Night," Jackson said. "It is our main revenue source."
Another part of the arrangement with the Community Foundation of Illinois: C-U at Home can't use any of its donation money to pay employees, Dixon and Jackson say.
The foundation won't permit donor funding for any of the agencies for which it serves as a fiscal agent to be used for hiring employees, because it doesn't want to take on employer responsibilities (such as employee tax forms) for those organizations, Dixon said.
"Our interest is in supporting the charitable activities, not supporting the employment," she said. "We're a small staff."
Jackson has never earned any money from C-U at Home, she and Smith said, and she doesn't stand to be paid anything anytime soon.
The organization could hire staff as a nonprofit on its own, but a salary for Jackson would be well down the priority list after a case manager and office manager were hired, they said.
Jackson lives on support from friends and is currently house-sitting for shelter, she said.
"My biggest expenses are gas and the phone, and (the book) 'Radicals,' she said. "I give those away by the case."
Without paid staff, that leaves volunteers to do the work.
In addition to Jackson, there's Smith (a part-time University of Illinois employee who said his faith drew him to the organization) who are part of a core group of about a dozen, they said.
Their group also includes a part-time social worker who supervises UI social work interns who volunteer with the organization, Smith and Jackson said.
Smith said C-U at Home needs more volunteers, especially men who can serve as mentors and provide transportation during the daytime.
What kind of people is the organization seeking in volunteers?
"Someone with a pulse," Jackson joked, then added more seriously: Somebody with time, a listening ear and an open heart.
Two early volunteers with the organization had concerns that drove them to quit, they said.
David Powell of Champaign, who helped with the first One Winter Night, said he tried to help C-U at Home file its 501(c)(3) application with the IRS.
But he couldn't get answers to basic questions on finances and structure for the organization, and never started the application, he said.
Powell said he helped get a rental house ready to house the organization's first homeless person, the late Vern Chounard, who moved into the organization's first donated rental house in Champaign in December 2011. Mr. Chounard later returned to the streets and died last August after a fall.
"The issue there was, it did not seem that a plan was in place to take care of all the things that someone in Vern's position would need," Powell recalls.
He said Jackson wanted to take the most severe cases off the streets, "and that's appealing in a way, but you have to be able to handle them. I wasn't sure that organization was ready to do that. Melany wasn't willing to give answers."
Smith said placing Chounard in that first house took the last of Jackson's personal money, and the information Powell wanted back then on organization structure and finances didn't exist yet.
"There really wasn't any money at that point," Smith said.
He and Jackson also said the organization wasn't ready to set up a 501(c)(3) at that time, because it didn't have a board of directors or bylaws or the resources to put those things in place yet.
Another former volunteer, Sheri Williamson of Champaign, said she got involved with C-U at Home because she had done volunteer work for the homeless in Chicago and still feels passionate about helping with that cause. But, she said, she learned C-U wasn't as prepared to link people with services, such as primary health care, as she had been led to believe.
"She (Jackson) made it sound like she had all these things already established," Williamson said.
Her work with C-U at Home lasted through the start of the first fundraiser last year, she said.
"That ended up being my primary concern," she said. "What are you raising money for?"
Williamson said she also had concerns about C-U at Home's approach to housing the homeless.
Rather than try to house one or two people in a home, she said, she thinks it would be more cost-effective to use group homes for three to five people, where daily living could be relearned in a more accountable and supportive environment.
Alone, she said, someone transitioning from street to home life is in a "sink or swim" situation.
Two people in a home is better than one, she said, but "I still think a group home is more cost-efficient, though. Rent isn't cheap."
Failed at shelters
There were 549 homeless people identified in the 2011 Point-in-Time survey done by the Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care, the last survey for which data is available.
C-U at Home has identified 19 most vulnerable among the homeless of Champaign County for that year, applying the Vulnerability Index, a tool for prioritizing street homelessness based on the research of Dr. Jim O'Connell of Boston's Healthcare for the Homeless, Jackson said. Twelve additional most vulnerable people were added to the local list last fall.
C-U at Home has been using single-family houses because it's limited to the kind of housing that is donated for its use and the staffing it can provide through volunteers, Jackson and Smith say.
But they also say a group home would be too much like shelter care, and many of the most vulnerable people C-U at Home is striving to help have already failed at shelter life.
"Some people think, 'Throw them all in a building,'" Smith said. "That's called a shelter. These are people who can't live in a shelter."
Some of the men C-U at Home is working with have tried the TIMES Center program run by Community Elements, Jackson said. That program serves up to 50 homeless men in Champaign County with supportive services to help prepare them for independent living.
"Most of the men that we are helping have spent time at the TIMES Center. They've been one time or they've been there multiple times, and it didn't stick," Jackson said.
Jake Maguire, spokesman for New York-based 100,000 Homes, said there's not a one-size-fits-all model for addressing the needs of the homeless — for example, one person in a home, two persons in a home, group homes, he said. But when someone has some say in his or her living arrangements, success is more likely, he adds.
"To the extent that those kinds of options are able to be extended to an individual, it's great when an individual has as much say as possible in their housing options," he said.
What 100,000 Homes has learned is "housing first" can work when it's paired with supportive services, he said. And, he also said, the communities most successful in solving the issue of homelessness are the ones that have the broadest coalitions working together.
Maguire said he is familiar with C-U at Home through the newsletters he receives from Jackson.
"What we would like to see is the work that she (Jackson) is doing catalyze some support in that community," he said. "The only way to do this is for organizations doing the same thing, doing the same kind of work, to come together. It would be really great to do that in Champaign-Urbana. Melany's drive and commitment ought to be emulated in the community."
Walking with homeless
Strom, of Trinity Lutheran Church, first met Jackson volunteering on another mission serving the homeless, the Canteen Runs that provide food and other necessities to the poor and homeless four nights a week.
He doesn't know much about C-U at Home as an organization, Strom said, but he knows Jackson walks with the people she serves, and he thinks that's important.
"I know she has a special place in her heart for the homeless," he said.
Dan Davies, who coordinates the Canteen Run-Partnering Against Homelessness operation with his wife, Barb, says Jackson is one of the Canteen truck drivers.
He doesn't have the answer to homelessness, Davies said, but he knows Jackson is trying.
"She's been a champion for these homeless. I know her heart is in the right place and she's going to do whatever it takes," he said. "Find me one other person who's sold all her stuff and devoted herself to working with the homeless. That's what the Bible tells us to do. People don't want to get out of their comfort zone."
Jackson remembers her first winter working the Canteen Runs.
"I started meeting some of these guys in a very desperate situation in November 2010," she recalls.
She remembers one man with fingertips darkened by frostbite. She also remembers vividly one night that first winter when she, Davies and the other Canteen volunteers had just prayed with a group of homeless men who were about to spend a cold night in a parking garage. Then those men prayed for all of them.
"That grabbed my heart," she said.