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New downtown Peoria apartments aid efforts to curb homelessness

A newly dedicated downtown Peoria apartment complex aims to take another step toward reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness in the area.

Phoenix Community Development Services on Monday held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Madison Apartments II at 210 NE Madison Ave., drawing a large crowd of supporters, community leaders and elected officials.

“It's heartwarming because I know what a safe quality home means to people,” said Peoria Mayor Rita Ali. “It helps to inspire people to do more and to do better. So this, for many families who are on the verge of homelessness or are homeless, will mean so much to their future quality of life.”

“This building here and the work that Phoenix does represent the quality of a community, a community that says, ‘everybody matters, and everybody is going to fit in and be a part of this community,’” added State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria.

Funded through a $5.5 million award through the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s Permanent Supportive Housing Development Program, Madison II features 24 one-bedroom apartments with kitchenettes.

“The planning for this actually started in 2018, so I think the most overwhelming feeling actually is just relieved to finally be here, and obviously just really happy that we're able to end homelessness for 24 of our neighbors today,” said Phoenix CDS president and CEO Christine Kahl.

But Kahl noted there’s always more work to do in their efforts to address homelessness.

“On any given night, there's 220 homeless individuals in our community. So this will solve the problem for a few, but that's part of it,” said Kahl. “You just kind of keep moving along and keep creating housing to bring that list down.”

The building also includes several on-site tenant amenities, such as a laundry facility, a lounge, a computer room, and an activities room with a ping pong table.

“Access to affordable, quality, and permanent housing is critical to both individual and our community's well-being,” said Phoenix CDS Board of Trustees president Zack Baker.

Kahl said supply chain issues amid COVID-19 led to some construction delays. She says the pandemic also resulted in more people facing housing uncertainty.

“Prior to COVID, our community was making some pretty good strides in slowly lowering that (homeless) number a little bit every year,” said Kahl. “During COVID, obviously, you saw a lot more individuals become vulnerable with their housing as a result of losing jobs. So I think we're seeing somewhat of an uptick.”

Kahl said Madison II still has a few small construction details that need to be finished and she hopes to have tenants moving into the apartments as soon as next week. A resident must meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homeless to qualify for one of the apartments.

“When a person is identified off of the centralized wait list to come in here, they become a lease-holder and this is their permanent residence. They don't ever have to leave; it’s considered ‘low -barrier’ housing,” said Kahl, adding the wait list order is based on vulnerability.

Kahl said a donation from CEFCU filled a gap in funding for the Madison II project. Additionally, the Peoria Housing Authority provided 18 long-term operating subsidies, the Illinois Department of Human Services’ division of mental health services contributed development subsidies, and the Community Foundation of Central Illinois and Grace and Peace Lutheran Church awarded grants to purchase household goods for the tenants.

“As you can imagine, when you are homeless and you're moving in off the streets, you don't have simple things like towels for the bathroom, a bed, sheets for your bed, dishes, and pots and pans,” said Kahl.

“It takes these projects a lot of money to get them online, but they're a wise investment because ultimately they save the community money.”

Kahl said completion of Madison II allows Phoenix to focus more attention on their next projects: Madison Apartments III and a nearby workforce development center on Fayette Street. She said Phoenix recently received approval from IDHA for Madison III, which will be located between the first two Madison developments.

“That will focus on the 18-24-year-old homeless population; that's a growing demographic in our community,” said Kahl, adding the workforce development component is vital to reducing homelessness.

“Our population of residents have about 90% unemployment rates, and they don't do very well in traditional workforce development programs. So, with a grant from the city, we're going to build a restaurant on the ground floor, employ our consumers to teach them a skill to work in that service industry, and then put them into private jobs.”

In addition to the ribbon-cutting, Phoenix also dedicated “The Dream Mural” painted on the exterior of Madison I. The artwork designed by Heather Ford was funded by the AARP Community Challenge grant program, with additional support from Big Picture Peoria.

“The connection to arts improves the quality of life and mental well-being for our folks who live here,” said Kahl. “The idea was to start with a mural and to build out kind of an ‘urban oasis’ back here for the consumers in several of our projects to enjoy. Eventually, as a part of Madison Apartments III, we're going to be putting a little bit of a performance stage out here and other stuff, just trying to have this whole arts collaborative to just help our residents feel welcome.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.