Homeless face more than one winter night

Homeless face more than one winter night

What Evelyn Denise does all day is walk around outside in Champaign.

Snow, ice, windchill and all.

Home is nowhere.

Bed tonight might be a bench outside.

"You don't have a choice," she says.

The 44-year-old native of the Virgin Islands says she has been homeless most of her life; has been in many states in the U.S. and in Champaign about two weeks; is educated but unable to work; has sought treatment for schizophrenia but is currently untreated, and has no family support.

She mentions hearing voices sometimes, screaming and hollering.

With local volunteers set to spend Friday night sleeping outdoors for an annual fund-raiser, Denise shared with The News-Gazette what it's like to be homeless 365 days a year.

"You learn to hold your head up and move on about your business," she says. "Why hold your head down just because somebody else wants you to?"

Denise says her nights are sometimes spent on the streets, sitting up on a bench — if she can find one that isn't covered with snow these days. But if she can get a spot, she stays at Austin's Place women's emergency shelter at First United Methodist Church in downtown Champaign.

"Hopefully they will let me in the church tonight," she said Wednesday. "But there is no guarantee."

When she was sitting out the night on a bench recently, she says, police picked her up and tried to find her an indoor shelter but eventually took her to spend the rest of the night inside the county jail lobby — where she'd be warm.

Twice, Denise ended up at a local hospital for frostbite, she says. Once an ambulance took her. Once, she recalls walking from downtown to Presence Covenant Medical Center.

She goes to Daily Bread Soup Kitchen for lunch and the TIMES Center for dinner, and has also gotten fed by the Salvation Army, she says.

As for belongings, she owns the clothes on her back and carries a plastic bag containing two pair of pants and a sweater she says she got from Empty Tomb, the Christian service organization.

For activity, she walks around Champaign. Sometimes she'll go into the library to use a computer for Internet access, she says. Sometimes she stops at benches.

"Anywhere I could take a break from walking," Denise says.

She had been using the facilities and sitting outside on a bench at the Illinois Terminal building, Denise says, but she can't go there any more. Somebody there told her she had to leave.

"They wouldn't even let me sit on a bench outside," she says.

As for the future, Denise says she is trying to transfer her Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits from New York to Illinois, but doesn't look to stay in Champaign.

It's "so small," she says, "I don't know where to go."

Champaign is also family-oriented and "too personal," she says. "They're too comfortable and loving each other."

Homeless in Champaign County

1. There are currently 461 homeless kids in Champaign County, according to the Regional Office of Education. They sleep in cars, on other families' couches or wherever they and a parent/guardian can find shelter for the night.

2. There is a "dire need" for more emergency shelters, where a homeless person facing a night outside can walk in and get a bed for the night, says Melany Jackson, executive director of C-U at Home. In a 2013 report, local agencies listed 234 year-round emergency, safe haven and transitional housing beds available in Champaign County, with 24 of them are classified as emergency shelter beds. The rest are available through transitional housing programs.

3. The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Champaign serves lunch to 200 to 250 people on weekdays and to about 300 people on weekends. About one-third of the people coming to eat are believed to be homeless. The rest have a place to live but can't afford food.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on February 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Homeless kids should not be ignored.  It is easy to blame homelessness on adults; but no one can blame kids.  If there are 461 in Champaign County; imagine how many there are in the state, and nation.  Since the 1960's when "The Other America" was written; the problem continues, and grows.  Bipartisan political cooperation is desperately needed to end this national shame.  Food, and shelter are not entitlements as currently politically defined. 

pattis69 wrote on February 22, 2014 at 5:02 am

461 homeless kids in Champaign means they have homeless parents. Our country is too concerned about foreign countries and their needs. How are our children going to get a proper education if they don't have shelter or proper nutrition to stimulate their minds and bodies?  We have to start prioritizing our own homeless society and the children within. Funding has to be made available to provide shelter for the homeless, especially if they have children. Our lawmakers should have to spend just six months on the average person's salary, or on welfare, to see how the "other half" lives. How can they relate to the working poor or the homeless when they are drawing a six figure annual salary? I think sleeping on the ground or a park bench in the middle of winter just might change their minds about the homeless crisis in this country.