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'The viaduct was their habitat, and they're human beings'

'Just because somebody is homeless doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated like a stray dog,' said Jon Bushue, 26, who said he dragged a couple recliners he found in a dumpster by the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to the viaduct on East Main Street so his friend wouldn't have to sleep on the ground.

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Jon Bushue, 26, lights a cigarette on a bench outside CU at Home's Phoenix Daytime Drop-In Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, on Washington Street in downtown Champaign. Bushue said he and a friend dragged two recliners from the dumpster outside the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to the railroad viaduct on East Main Street after he saw that his friend was sleeping on the ground there.

CHAMPAIGN — The person who put the recliners in the viaduct on East Main Street in downtown Champaign said he did so because the people who use them “deserve the same amenities that a person with a home deserves.”

Having to sleep on a concrete floor will break your spirit, said 26-year-old Jon Bushue. Waking up feeling sore, “your body popping all over the place,” and having to confront the fact that the floor is your bed for the foreseeable future “isn’t something that makes you feel good” when you’re homeless.

Bushue said he was just trying to help out a friend when he found the two recliners in a dumpster at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore two weeks ago and dragged them to the railroad viaduct between the two former train stations on Main Street. He wasn’t sleeping there himself, he said, but when he saw his new friend sleeping on the ground, he had to do something.

“Just because somebody is homeless doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated like a stray dog,” Bushue said while lighting a cigarette outside CU at Home, where he’s been staying during the day to avoid the sun since he came to Champaign three weeks ago.

The group’s Phoenix Daytime Drop-In Center at 70 E. Washington St., C, which offers shower and laundry facilities, computers with internet access, a phone, a job board, board games and musical instruments, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and emergency hours during times of extreme heat or cold, but there is no year-round 24-hour homeless shelter in town.

Bushue came to the Phoenix to get his Supplemental Security Income check back, he said, because “it got cut off three months ago,” around the same time he was kicked out of his home in Mattoon after an episode of “explosive anger.”

“Mind you, I have Asperger (syndrome), I’m bipolar, I have schizophrenia and intermittent explosive disorder,” Bushue said. “The slightest thing will just set me off.”

In Mattoon, which has a year-round 24-hour homeless shelter, Bushue said “the homeless feel like they’re a part of the community.” When he got to Champaign and saw the way homeless people were being treated, “it set me off.”

“I figured because it said Habitat for Humanity on the dumpster that it was perfect,” Bushue said. “The viaduct was their habitat, and they’re human beings. That’s where they were sleeping up until the cops raised hell. That was their home. Heaven forbid these people sleep on a foam mattress topper or a recliner or a chair or just some blankets on the ground. They deserve the same amenities that a person with a home deserves.”

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From left, Cassopeia Wiles, 27, Rashad Smith, 23, and Ash Bakre, 29, make their way from West Side Park to the Illinois Terminal on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in downtown Champaign after having spent the previous night in the railroad viaduct on East Main Street.

The recliners that Bushue dragged to the viaduct with his friend were a big help for Ash Bakre, 29, Cassopeia Wiles, 27, and Rashad Smith, 23, who were passing through town Thursday on their way to Danville and found them a welcome alternative to sleeping on the ground for a night.

“The reason we slept there last night was because it was close to the soup kitchen downtown,” Smith said while packing up his bags at West Side Park on Friday before heading to the Illinois Terminal. “We saw that people pretty much gather there when we get out. Other people stay (the night) out there, but us, we were just there because of weird circumstances.”

Wiles missed her bus to Danville, where she lives in a one-bedroom apartment, and doesn’t know anyone in Champaign aside from Smith. Bakre, whom Smith called his brother, said he got stranded in Champaign after leaving Chicago two weeks ago. And Smith, who got out of prison two months ago, got locked out of his grandmother’s apartment on Hill Street late at night and didn’t want to disturb her despite not having anywhere else to go.

“When that happens, I pretty much just walk around,” Smith said. “I walk to Urbana, back to Champaign, maybe stay over by the Terminal, under the viaduct, or maybe West Side Park. I do got other places to go, but I was basically there for Cassopeia last night.”

Wiles said she missed the 7:20 p.m. bus back to Danville because she was hanging out with her friends and lost track of time.

“I didn’t make it in time to the station, so I walked around and then crashed at the viaduct,” Wiles said. “I actually didn’t really have another place to go. I just moved to Danville over a year ago, so I don’t know people that well there. And I don’t know anyone here except for Rashad.”

Bakre said he doesn’t know why he was in Champaign.

“After I separated from my wife, I just wanted to leave,” he said. “I guess I just got upset and came out here and got stranded and can’t go nowhere.”

Smith said he’s trying to get him “out of this environment.”

“We’re on a mission,” he said. “To get to Danville.”

Wiles said she hopes the city builds “a big shelter for all the homeless,” though Smith laughed and retorted that “you can tell the city a thousand times to get beds and a homeless shelter, but they’re not going to do anything.”

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The scene underneath the viaduct at the east end of Main Street on Friday morning, Aug. 2, 2019, in Champaign.

If 400 people pledged $40 a month for a 24-hour, year-round shelter in Champaign, CU at Home could run it, said Terry Andrews, its housing and outreach coordinator.

“They can pick a day and that will be their day they’re funding,” Andrews said. “If there was a shelter, we wouldn’t have these issues.”

He has been working alongside the city of Champaign to relocate some of the people who have made a home under the viaduct.

But helping out the homeless often means sending them to other communities.

“We try to help them get to a community where there is a shelter,” Andrews said, adding that he’s already gotten a few people out of Champaign. “One was able to go back to Chicago, and we’re getting one to Charleston this evening.”

Aleta Keith, administrative director of CU at Home, said the Phoenix’s hours are the only time homeless people have a place to go in Champaign.

“And after that, there’s nothing for them right now,” Keith said. “Of course they’re sleeping there; they are homeless. There’s no safe or legal place for them to go. Until we do have a 365-day emergency shelter, I feel like this is going to be a continuing problem.”

Of the recliners under the viaduct, Keith said she had no opinion.

Instead, she asked, “would you want to sleep on the concrete?”

Reporter

Aldo Toledo is a reporter covering local government at The News-Gazette. His email is atoledo@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@aldot29).