CHAMPAIGN — Although the establishment of a year-round shelter is one of the Champaign County Community Coalition’s key projects to address the needs of the homeless population, its facilitator said the group isn’t planning to urge the Champaign City Council to allocate the funds for it.
Instead, Tracy Parsons, who also serves as Champaign’s community-relations manager, said the coalition is sticking to its “mutual advocacy” model to deal with the issues facing the homeless, as well as a number of other problems in the city.
“I don’t know if that would ever be our role,” Parsons said when asked if the coalition could urge the council to provide support for CU at Home, the organization currently operating the city’s only homeless shelter at the former TIMES Center.
“Our approach, and what we believe is most effective, is supporting those groups that are doing good work in this area,” Parsons added. “If there’s a way we can help raise the conversation or create a space or platform to talk about this more, that is more what our role would be as a coalition.”
Mutual advocacy and support for private and nonprofit organizations, a mainstay of the group’s working philosophy since its inception 10 years ago, is how it has been tackling gun violence, youth development and community engagement.
Rather than it being “an intentional activity” of the coalition to demand a year-round homeless shelter or advocate for the city to build one, Parsons said its intention is “not to be in competition with other groups or try to duplicate things that are already in place.”
Parsons made the comments ahead of today’s council meeting, during which he will give an update about the future of the coalition and its work so far this year as it marks its 10th anniversary.
Along with its long-time goal to help curb gun violence, the coalition’s main goals have stretched further into creating new youth development initiatives, organizing around trauma-informed tactics, creating community-engagement opportunities and advocating for the homeless and reaching out to other communities in the county.
Founded in 2009 after 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington was shot and killed by a Champaign police officer responding to a report of a burglary, the coalition has always had curbing gun violence at the top of its radar. In May, it announced that it would hold neighborhood forums 36 hours after incidents of gun violence, including resources to deal with the effects of a shooting.
But Parsons said Friday that it has been difficult for the coalition to get residents of affected neighborhoods to participate in those forums.
“We had a good job getting community leadership there, but we didn’t get enough of the residents,” Parsons said.
Moving forward, the coalition plans to be more visible when it is “not functioning from a place of crisis,” Parsons added.
The first step will be to identify the locations where residents feel safe, like community centers, churches or other common spaces. Parsons said that will follow with regular activities in those spaces, some of which the group has already started to test this summer by hosting several block parties, “play-dates” in Urbana and family-friendly events.
Parsons hopes all this will help to raise the visibility of the coalition and get more people involved after a shooting, though he said it’s often difficult to devise a model that works “when we’re in the middle of a crisis.”
Far too often, he said, “we’re still responding, versus operating from a proactive space.”
Still, one resounding success for the coalition in that area has been its Goal Getters program. Started in the summer of 2018, Goal Getters is a partnership between the city, the coalition and the Champaign school district to give targeted counseling to students struggling socially and academically.
The initiative expanded in May, offering a similar experience to students at Urbana schools with its Self Made Kingz summer program.
“This is offering a lot of individualized development for these students, so they are exposed and aware that there’s more to life than this negative clique activity,” Parsons said.
By tackling the problem of increased violence in schools with youth development and employment opportunities, the coalition hopes future gun violence can be prevented, though it can often be difficult to gauge the coalition’s impact.
“One of the things we’re really interested in right now is learning how we measure our impact,” Parsons said. “We have a number of groups and committees working on these issues, and things are continuing to happen. Our shooting incidents are up. That lets us know we have work in front of us. I believe, though, by our proactive approach, we’re farther ahead than we were.”