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Sangamon County's struggles with homelessness may lessen with opening of $9 million shelter

Darnell Smith
Maureen McKinney
NPR Illinois
Darnell Smith agreed to have his picture taken, but asked that his face not be shown.

Darnell Smith called out to a passerby: ”Right here my man. God bless you, sir. Thank you.”

He turned to a woman watching the exchange and said, “So, I appreciate everything that comes my way. Homeless people ain't bad people, you know.”

The 62-year-old was sitting outside the Ascend Cannabis dispensary on Adams Street. A shopping cart with coats and blankets and other odds and ends sat beside him.

“Hopefully things are gonna look up pretty soon. I just take it one day at a time. Put God first and everything else works itself out.”

The former cook, who has lived in Springfield most of his life, has been on the streets downtown since he was evicted from his apartment on Cook Street in July.

But he won’t be using the new $9 million Helping Hands shelter off Dirksen Parkway on the city’s far east side, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held this morning.

“I can't do the shelter thing. That's just… not me. For several reasons — There are too many,...people around me, too many people with mental health issues,’’ he said. “It's one thing being out here – five, six people. So they come and go, and I'm still here. But when you put me in a forced environment, where I'm around 30 and 40 people, I just can't deal with it.“

The new shelter, and plans to create more homes for the unsheltered, are indications that the community has begun work to resolve the formidable problem of homelessness. But Smith’s disinterest signifies the vexing nature of the problem.

Springfield and the state, too, seem to have a greater appetite to tackle homelessness. At the state level, there’s a specific agency and a new director to address the issue. Over a two-year period, $85 million was allocated, which created more grant opportunities for communities throughout the state, including Springfield.

The new 22,000-square-foot Helping Hands facility triples the beds in the city’s largest shelter. Along with a 110-bed dorm for men and a 30 slot one for women, the building has a health clinic with rooms for medically fragile individuals, a kitchen and offices.

Laura Davis, who is the executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield, said, “As a community, we have a lot of plans in place, and we're starting to see them come together.”

But she cautioned that more needs to happen.

Josh Sabo is executive director of Heartland Housed, the entity that allocates funding and collaborates with support groups like the Helping Hands, Washington Street Mission and Sojourn Shelter and Services.

Heartland Housed leads a plan to get functional homelessness to zero by 2028.The goal over the course of the plan is to get 765 additional housing opportunities for the previously homeless.

“We‘ve grossly underfunded the programs to get out of homelessness,’’ Sabo said.

Sabo called the Helping Hands expansion a tremendous asset, providing adequate emergency shelter for men and women in Springfield.

Woman speaks
Maureen McKinney
NPR Illinois
Laura Davis speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Helping Hands shelter off Dirksen Parkway. SMTD buses and a Helping Hands shuttle will run people to the site.

“We will have a shelter that's open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, for the first time, really, in our in our city's history. Even though we've had the overflow shelter, we've kind of had some mix-and-match type of things going on.”

Past attempts to deal with the unhoused failed politically.

Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter said he supported the plan for an expanded Helping Hands because it makes use of under-used space at the Sangamon County Juvenile Justice Center. The county paid for it through through American Rescue Plan Act, aka COVID relief funds.

“People were just beside themselves that, in Mr. Lincoln's hometown, we had such a mess on our hands. And I think the whole community was just sort of crying out to find a solution,’’ he said. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you pull together and work out a solution. So, I hope we're on the road towards a solution now.’’

The goal with homelessness, Davis said, “is to get them off the street, get them engaged with services, get them assessed for housing opportunities, and then getting them connected with those housing. and opportunities as quickly as possible.”

She said, “We have to have the supportive services in place, especially for people who have been homeless for a long period of time, or who have substance use or mental illness. They need those supports to maintain that housing otherwise, you just see this revolving door, we can get people into an apartment but, if we don't have those services in place to support them.“

Davis says it is hard to determine the enormity of the problem.

“Springfield as a whole, I think we're just trying to get a handle on what that population looks like,” she said. “How many are we actually dealing with? And then that will help us to plan better for the future. How many housing opportunities do we really need? How big do our shelters need to be as we move them toward housing?"

“If you look around Springfield, you can see that there are populations that are clustered in different areas. We know that there are encampments," Davis said.

“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you pull together and work out a solution. So, I hope we're on the road towards a solution now.’’ — Sangamon Co. Board Chair Andy Van Meter

She was part of a team that took an official federal Housing and Urban Development count last January. That count, she says, doesn’t paint a full picture.

According to the HUD report, Sangamon County had 306 people in shelters, transitional housing and on the street that night in January.

“There were very few people out this winter. But they weren't necessarily in shelters,’’ she said. “And so, if people were doubled, tripled, quadrupled up in hotel rooms during that time, just because they were able to get a room for that night, doesn't mean that they're not experiencing homelessness.”

Helping Hands served about 800 people last year. And advocates say a 1,000 to 1,200-large homeless population is more likely.

Statewide, the point-in-time count was 12,000. Christine Haley, the state homelessness chief, in an interview last year, said a better estimate of the homeless includes 44,000 living in the streets or a car, and about 75,000 people who lack their own addresses and stay with family or friends.

Niya Kelly is the chief lobbyist for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which is a statewide organization.

“That homelessness takes many forms is more apparent now,” she said. “People are beginning to better understand what homelessness looks like. And it's not like stereotypical people living under bridges, or people living in shelters – it can take many forms, particularly outside of city centers.”

It is unclear what Darnell Smith, the man who had been sleeping on Adams Street, has been doing for shelter in below zero temperatures this week. He told a reporter earlier in January that he knew people trying to help him get a hotel room, so he could get cleaned up and go back into the workforce.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.