City approves one-year homeless shelter strategy

The Springfield City Council passed a one-year plan to convert the former Salvation Army facility at 221 N. 11th Street, now the site of a tent city, into an overflow homeless shelter. The compromise came after talk last month of a two-year plan for the same facility.

The council passed the $477,000 plan at its Aug. 17 meeting, paving the way for the Salvation Army to operate the site. Since the facility closed in April, a growing tent city has sprung up on the property, with homeless residents receiving services during limited hours.

Representatives of east side neighborhood associations spoke up to criticize the council for not first consulting with groups in Springfield's Ward 2, in which the site will be located. Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams voted "present," the only council member not to vote in favor of the plan.

Williams said while he supports attempts to provide shelter and other relief to Springfield's homeless population, he could not support the plan because, he said, it fails to answer pressing long-term questions. The city plans to assess whether the 11th Street facility will still be usable after a planned partial demolition in early 2022 as part of the Springfield Rail Improvement Project.

"Nobody has addressed the elephant in the room, which is, where is this going to be located long term?" Williams said.

Williams also echoed the sentiments of some neighborhood groups, saying that the social services for those experiencing homelessness remain clustered on the city's east side.

Pioneer Park Neighborhood Homeowners Association (PPHA) president Angela Harris, vice president Vanessa Knox and secretary Mary Shanklin issued a statement saying it is the association's expectation that the city's existing operating shelters will open their facilities to the homeless population and that there should not be a need to use another facility such as the Salvation Army location in light of the three existing homeless shelter facilities in a three-block radius.

The neighborhood association also said Mayor Jim Langfelder made a commitment to them that the facility will not continue to function as a shelter after 24 months, which he confirmed with Illinois Times on Aug. 30.

"We want to ensure the residents within PPHA are heard, respected and safe, including the children that attend Lincoln Magnet School and others who come from all areas of the city that ride the SMTD," the association's statement read, in part. "We have again been asked to support those less fortunate and PPHA has again risen to the challenge. Now we ask the entire city to share in the responsibility of caring for the homeless population."

Tom Hutchison, president of the Mather and Wells Neighborhood Association, also located in Ward 2, said that while he supports the city's effort to provide help to the homeless, there should be recognition on the part of the city that homelessness is a citywide concern.

"The east side did not create homelessness and certainly is not solely responsible for providing the solutions," Hutchison said. "Social issues are not an east side problem, they are a citywide problem, and there should be a citywide effort to address them."

The council put on hold a two-year plan presented in July at the urging of the Heartland Continuum of Care after coordinator Josh Sabo addressed the council ahead of the vote.

The council instead adopted a one-year plan by Heartland CoC with the eventual goal of a new model that would eliminate the year-to-year uncertainty about overflow shelter.

"That's exactly what we want to solve, the uncertainty for people of, are they going to have a bed available?" Sabo said, who added more planning is forthcoming.

The latest plan also involves Heartland CoC member organizations providing a range of other services, including rapid rehousing and supportive housing programs which aim to get homeless people off the street and into long-term housing. Helping Hands of Springfield will be coordinating such services, said executive director Erica Smith.

"Shelter is essential, but housing has to be the focus, and I think that's what a lot of people didn't see in [the council's initial] plan, me included," Smith said.

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said the plan's focus on more comprehensive services contributed to his approval.

"I felt there was enough work on this situation from the Continuum of Care and the Center for Health and Housing proposal, and I feel like the idea is there," Gregory said.

Smith said despite the difficulties with the city's shelter model over the past 15 years, the one-year plan is a step in the right direction and ending homelessness in Springfield is a possibility.

"The overflow shelter is necessary. The question is: How do we structure it in a way that's effective and sustainable?" Smith said. "Homelessness is something we can help people resolve. I believe we have every reason to expect that we could end homelessness in our community in five years or less."

Kenneth Lowe is a Springfield resident and a regular contributor to Paste Magazine.

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