Updated 4:40 p.m. Monday.
CHAMPAIGN — Sheltering homeless families without splitting up mom, dad and the kids isn't easy, but the United Way of Champaign County says it will try using hotel rooms as emergency shelters for families without homes.
The agency announced a new pilot program Monday in which it will work with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission to lodge homeless families in need of temporary shelter in budget and extended stay hotels.
The program will be available to families over the next year, and to single women through March 31, according to Beverley Baker, the United Way's director of community impact.
The hotel lodging is a different approach to a family emergency shelter than the one the agency was planning to launch at a local church last year with the help of a network of volunteers and paid staff.
The Urbana church that was going to house the shelter hasn't been identified. The United Way held a blanket and towel drive last fall to stock the shelter, and at that time was aiming to have it open before the end of last year.
Baker said the United Way always considered a family shelter to be a pilot program, but decided it wouldn't make sense to invest money in a permanent shelter anywhere before determining the need for it.
"We need to know where the gap is so we know how to fill it the best way," she said. "The steering team put a lot of thought and consideration into it, and determined this was the most reasonable and cost-effective way to do it."
The shelter that would have been run at the church would have needed hundreds of volunteers — plus paid staff, food for meals and security, all of which stood to drain resources from the immediate shelter and help families needed most, Baker said.
The Regional Planning Commission will provide screening and case management to help women and families identify and overcome obstacles for homelessness and refer them to services in the community, she said.
The goal is to get homeless families off the street, but keep them together — and keep children attending school, according to the United Way,
Baker said the United Way has budgeted enough money to keep the pilot program going a year, but said the amount of money being invested in the program isn't being disclosed.
The single women who will be served temporarily with the program will be served in partnership with Austin's Place, a winter women's emergency shelter that closed for the season Jan. 31, Baker said.
Partners in the program, along with the United Way, the Regional Planning Commission and First United Methodist Church/Austin's Place, include the cities of Champaign and Urbana, the University of Illinois Office of Volunteer Programs and the Council of Service Providers to the Homeless.
The program will serve only Champaign County residents, according to the United Way. More than 300 school-age children are homeless, and about one in five kids under age 18 are living in poverty, in Champaign County, the agency said.
People wishing to donate to the program can donate online at http://www.uwayhelps.org  (type Emergency Shelter in the notes box) or mail a check to United Way, 404 W. Church St., Champaign, Ill. 61820.
Families can be referred to the emergency shelter by calling 372-1137.