Last week Julie Bartlett Benson got a 79-year-old Vietnam veteran into a hotel, where he could stay until Feb. 2, when his check comes in. She got a pregnant woman off the street for a week. The woman is trying to get into rehab, but she has a dog so couldn't get into a shelter. The night before I met with her, Benson was able to get propane to a woman in New Berlin who's living in a small travel trailer with her disabled son. Her work is unpaid, but even as a volunteer she rarely takes a day off, because "people don't have problems just Monday through Friday, 9 to 5."
"People reach out to me for all kinds of stuff," she said. "I wake up in the morning and people are calling me and instant-messaging me. I haven't even got my feet on the ground yet, and I've already got six things to do. Everybody knows how to get ahold of me." She says many have her phone number memorized, useful if they're in jail, or if they don't have a phone and need to call her from someone else's phone. She wears her number on her shirt: "Helping the Homeless in Springfield, Illinois, 217-652-1307."
Benson enjoys her life and her work, but it isn't easy to work amid so much pain. "It's heart-wrenching to hear some of the stories. But I don't cry in front of anybody. I go home and cry. Because they're looking to me to be a source of strength, and the last thing they want is somebody wimping. I've had grown men cry on my shoulder, saying, 'My mom was my strength and she's gone.' Some of them call me Mama."
For this work she needs a thick skin. "You know, you can do 20 things for people, and if you don't do the 21st thing, you're no good. You're not the person they thought you were. Then a week later they're calling me and asking me for something. And it's over."
Being well known and, mostly, loved, is far different from when she started in January seven years ago after a whisper from God. "I was on my way to church that morning and I got a whisper that said, 'You're going to help the homeless people.'" She started out small, gathering donations of hats, gloves and scarves from church members, then went to the parking lot of an established Springfield homeless shelter, opened her trunk and started handing things out. The homeless people who gathered around were skeptical, wanting to know how much she was charging. And the shelter told her, "You need to conduct your business off the property. We don't need your help." After that she started parking across the street for her weekly handouts.
Her street ministry grew when her employer, Henson Robinson, gave her a used van in 2018 as a retirement gift, then she got a building where she and volunteers sort donations. She incorporated Helping the Homeless as a 501(c)3 nonprofit so donations are deductible, but she resisted growing her organization much beyond that. Helping the Homeless doesn't receive government grants, just private donations, and she doesn't solicit donations by mail. "I don't want to just manage people. I want to go out and meet the people. I've had people want to ride with me to help me. But I don't need anybody to open up the van door and hand out socks."
Even today she occasionally gets the feeling from Springfield's established homeless-helping organizations that her help isn't needed. "They don't call me anymore." But you're not a threat to them? "They act like I am. They said I'm enabling people. But you know, giving somebody a sleeping bag is not enabling somebody. It's trying to keep them from freezing to death."
She's pleased that the proposed new Helping Hands homeless shelter to be built on the eastern edge of Springfield plans to offer a wide range of services. But she worries that, even though there are plans to provide transportation, it's too far away from downtown for the people it serves. She scoffs at the long-range planning to reduce homelessness currently underway: "It's taking too long," Benson said. "They keep doing studies. But how many studies do you need in order to know that we don't have enough affordable, decent housing in this community?"
With housing in mind, in recent months she's launched a new business venture, called "Home Sweet Home sober-living LLC," which she owns by herself and for which she receives no grants. Last Oct. 4 with a bank loan she acquired a house on South Fifth Street. "I almost filled the house that night. And I thought, I've got a waiting list, I could fill another house. So I'm driving down Fourth Street and I see this 'For Sale' sign." On Jan. 5 she became the owner of a second building, with room to house more men. She plans to be strict about collecting rent. "People tend to be more responsible if they have to help pay for something." And she's serious about sober living, with plans to do random drug tests. "They have to be sober to live in the house. But if they test dirty, we will work on getting them the help they need. I'm not just going to boot somebody out the door."
Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.