Done deal?

Look before making Ward 2 a dumping ground. Again.

click to enlarge Erica Smith, director of Helping Hands shelter, explained plans for a new homeless shelter to a crowd at the Boys and Girls Club that included plenty of upset neighbors. - PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photo by Bruce Rushton
Erica Smith, director of Helping Hands shelter, explained plans for a new homeless shelter to a crowd at the Boys and Girls Club that included plenty of upset neighbors.

Last week’s “town hall” meeting on a proposed 11th Street homeless shelter reeked of check-a-box.

No one disagrees: There are too many homeless folks in Springfield and too little is being done to prevent them from splattering streets with vomit or peeing in public or going off meds. A shelter where they can get services pledged by Memorial Medical Center and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine is a good thing. It’s the where that’s the issue.

What would you think if you were promised there’d be no loitering by operators of a shelter that now allows loitering? What would you think if proponents promised 125 houses or apartments for homeless folks, scattered across town like so many sprinkles on a cupcake, but that would come later, maybe, after we put 130 homeless people inside an empty office building in your neighborhood? What would you think if there already were a dozen or so social service agencies clustered near your house?

If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d spit. I’d remember what happened when the Salvation Army tried putting a homeless shelter on the west side of 11th Street, first across the street from Oak Ridge Cemetery, then across the street from Horace Mann. Not in those backyards, the city decreed. If it was me, I’d ask, “Where else have you looked?” Like folks at last week’s meeting, I’d suggest sites elsewhere – the city doesn’t suffer for lack of vacant buildings. We have, for instance, Benedictine University, but don’t put it there, because I live nearby.

What about the Homestyle Inn, a past-its-prime hotel across the street from Memorial Medical Center? Memorial, I’m told, has tried to acquire the property, pondering eminent domain via the Mid-Illinois Medical District Commission, a government body with no money that last year went into executive session to discuss acquisition of unspecified real estate, perhaps with tax-exempt bonds. Nothing so far, has come of that. Memorial, I’m told, wants to spiffy up the place so relatives of patients will stay there. Why not homeless people? They’d be close to the hospital that promises to provide services, and it would seem easier than installing sufficient bathrooms and showers in former office space. The vacant Bally Vaughn apartments near Sacred Heart-Griffin High School also would seem a ready-made spot.

It’s not hard to guess why neither Memoral nor SHG would want a homeless shelter next door, and the reasons would sound familiar to people who live near 11th Street. The difference is, Memorial and SHG have clout.

Before Election Day, Governing magazine caused a minor sensation by pointing out what everyone knows: Springfield is a town divided by race, where incomes and housing on the east side are lousy and the idea of putting apartments in Panther Creek sounds crazier than a barefoot vet muttering to himself on the sidewalk. Before Election Day, politicians said something needs to be done, we’re too divided, we need to make the east side prosperous, racism is bad, diversity is our strength and blah, blah, woof, woof.

Now, this.

Erica Smith, director of the Helping Hands shelter who got stuck with ’splaining stuff to neighbors last week, isn’t to blame. All she wants is a better place than what the homeless have now. “I know that there are other locations,” she tells me. “I think the city could comment more on the process.” Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory, sworn in last week, hasn’t said where he stands.  Gail Simpson, alderwoman for a moment, opposes the plan, which she says she learned about in June, when she was told it would be place where services would be provided, not a spot where folks would sleep.

“I would have expected to have been brought on when they were looking for a building: Alderman, we’re looking for a location for this, we haven’t done anything, we’re just looking, we haven’t got an option to buy and, by the way, it will include 130 units for the homeless,” Simpson says. “What I got was, ‘Alderman, this is the plan.’”

Mayor Jim Langfelder sounds at sea. Yes, he tells me, the city’s racial divide is important. OK, where else have you looked? The mayor had no good answer. Instead he danced, on the one hand saying that a shelter is needed, on the other saying that it’s really not the city doing this – Helping Hands would own the building and is the applicant for a rezone. He allows that parents of children who attend nearby schools might have legitimate concerns. It’s not a done deal, he says.

But the mayor isn’t stopping this train. Without city money, the project doesn’t happen, and rezone hearings will go forward. “I’m a firm believer in letting processes work out,” the mayor offers. “It’s difficult, but it’s healthy at times.”

This isn’t one of those times.

Press the reset button. Request proposals, then winnow the list through a public process that involves neighborhood associations, Capital Township, churches, social service agencies, police and the homeless themselves. That might prove messy, but that’s the cost of building trust. City officials say that homelessness affects everyone. They are right, and they should start acting like it.  

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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