CHAMPAIGN — A local charity that set out to find homes for people living in the streets of Champaign-Urbana is heading in a new direction, looking to open a daytime drop-in center for the homeless and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts.
C-U at Home Executive Director Melany Jackson said the organization will hold its annual fund-raiser, One Winter Night, next month. But the money raised will support the new initiatives rather than housing for homeless people.
"There were lots of challenges and many levels of crisis," Jackson said of C-U at Home's original focus. "We definitely saw a lot of good things happen, and we were able to bring hope to folks who were pretty hopeless, but overall we have come to realize that that model was not something that makes sense here."
Jackson said two years' experience taught her and the organization that the Housing First philosophy wasn't practical "as we were trying to implement it."
Housing First is a national model that centers on finding homeless people housing first, then finding them the services they need to succeed in a new life off the street.
In places where Housing First is used successfully, organizations find permanent housing for residents, and government Section 8 vouchers are used to cover housing costs, Jackson said.
That hasn't been possible in the local community, she said.
Housing Authority of Champaign County Executive Director Edward Bland said the waiting list for those vouchers is closed.
"We have more people on our wait list than we have vouchers," he said.
People who receive housing vouchers must also pass criminal background checks, and able-bodied recipients between ages 18-54 must also be working at least 20 hours a week or be in a job training program or going to school to improve themselves, Bland said.
Jackson also said in areas where Housing First works, residents have leases with the property owners so they're the ones responsible for any drugs, weapons or criminal activity that goes on.
"That was kind of a big light bulb going off with me," she said. "No wonder I've felt so much stress."
C-U at Home set out to acquire or rent houses on its own, place homeless people in the homes, provide support for their transition from street to residential living and cover their living expenses.
The organization achieved 501 (c) (3) non-profit status last summer, a move that allowed it to use its funds to pay its current part-time staff of four, which includes Jackson.
But in recent months, its stock of homes dwindled from five to two, one due to a rent increase, Jackson said.
C-U at Home is now looking to turn one of its two remaining houses into a halfway house for recovering drug addicts who have been through rehab and use its other house, which has two bedrooms, to shelter a homeless family, Jackson said.
The organization is looking for a third property to use as a staffed daytime drop-in center for the homeless, and in these cold temperatures, the sooner the better, she said.
Homeless people have find relief from the winter cold or summer heat anywhere they can during the daytime, at stores, libraries, or campus and government buildings, Jackson said.
"We're hoping to get a place in downtown-midtown area that is easily accessible with a fairly large room, to have some very practical things — couches, a TV in the corner, maybe some computers, just a place for folks to come to congregate," Jackson said. "Right now daytime access is pretty limited."
C-U at Home is looking to lease or buy a space for the drop-in center, or "it would be wonderful if we find a benevolent owner who would help us out with that," she said.
One Winter Night
— What: Join pastors, public officials and others sleeping outside in cardboard boxes in downtown Champaign from 6 p.m. Feb. 21 to 6 a.m. Feb. 22 to help raise money for C-U at Home.
— History: This is the third year for this fund-raiser. Last year, more than 75 people slept outside, both downtown and on the UI Quad, and raised more than $50,000.
— This year's goal: Money raised will support C-U at Home's new initiatives.
— How to participate: Be a box dweller or business sponsor; volunteer with registration, hot beverage serving and other jobs or make a donation.
— More information: http://www.cuathome.us