A plan to combat homelessness arrived with a thud last week as the Springfield City Council approved nearly $200,000 for a winter shelter to keep the destitute from freezing.
The $190,000 contract with Salvation Army to run a temporary shelter until next spring came with the proviso that no money be given to John Fallon, a Waukegan homelessness consultant who already has been paid $24,000 under a contract granted last summer by Mayor Jim Langfelder, who says he retained Fallon after hearing him discuss homeless issues two years ago in Springfield.
Fallon proved unpopular with local service providers who found his style and criticisms abrasive. "I'm the asshole," Fallon acknowledged after completing a Facebook interview last week with Julie Benson, founder of Helping the Homeless in Springfield, at Harvard Park Baptist Church.
The mayor did not argue when the council last week specified that no more money be paid to his chosen consultant. Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath says he hasn't read Fallon's report. "We're getting a lot of bad messages from the homeless community about how the guy is acting," Redpath said. "All he does is go out and interview the homeless community and tell us how bad it is. I think we need to formulate a more solid plan."
Redpath says the city had the right plan in a proposed 11th Street homeless shelter that crumbled last year when the mayor, whose staff helped pick the site, balked. "We've got to have a permanent solution to our homeless problem," Redpath said. "We can't have tent city."
Since at least 2005, Springfield has seen plans for homeless shelters come and go. Fallon questions the need for a new shelter, saying the chronically homeless and the city would be better served by putting the homeless in apartments and houses instead of one large building. In his 30-page report, Fallon says:
• The city and Memorial Health System should set up a three-person team to work with a police officer now assigned to address homeless issues, with the city paying for two people and Memorial paying for the other at an annual cost of $161,000 to the city. The team would concentrate on homeless people lacking mental health care, medical services and addiction treatment who show up in courtrooms and emergency rooms. Medicaid, Fallon says, would pick up many costs.
• The city or social service agencies should establish a $25,000 fund to protect landlords who agree to rent homes and apartments to the homeless. Federal funds would cover rent, with the local fund acting as a collective damage deposit in the event premises need repair.
• Springfield needs a full-time housing locator to cut through red tape and find housing. A locator could expedite the release of state money for housing, Fallon says, while also providing administrative support to the Springfield Housing Authority, which he criticizes for denying housing to anyone found guilty of a misdemeanor within the past three years. After more than three months, most street homeless have criminal histories, he found. "Managing to survive on the streets often required petty theft, trespassing and other crimes of survival," Fallon wrote.
"While persons in emergency shelters regularly get services and eventual housing, I found that unsheltered persons seldom received services from agencies while living on the street," wrote Fallon, who found that the number of people living on the street has swelled from 50 to 75 since summer. "All individuals on the street eagerly spoke with me about a desire to be housed but had not seen service providers in some months."
Homeless women, Fallon says, are vulnerable, entering unhealthy relationships that bring protection if not stability. Fallon had sharp words for St. John's Hospital and Memorial Medical Center, saying that both tax-exempt hospitals are missing chances to treat street people. At St. John's, he wrote, security personnel and treatment supervisors have called the mayor's office, asking that homeless people be arrested for failing to leave hospital property after receiving treatment in the emergency room. "After having discharged people repeatedly on foot with limited mobility, they were surprised that persons might remain nearby the hospital and disturb the nearby businesses after their discharge without additional resources," Fallon wrote.
Without disputing that the hospital called for cops, St. John's bristles. "The information in his report is incomplete and inaccurately reflects how we care for the homeless," hospital officials wrote in an email. "St. John's Hospital has been and continues to be a partner in collaboratively seeking ways to address the adverse outcomes to which persons experiencing homelessness are at risk. Rather than giving credence to the voice of divisiveness, we will continue in the spirit of unity and collective impact to move forward in working with our city and county partners on a strategic plan to address homelessness." Memorial did not respond to Fallon's criticisms.
Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said he's skimmed Fallon's report and doesn't necessarily disagree with his findings. But McMenamin, who introduced the measure barring Fallon from getting any money from the $190,000 allotment for winter shelter, said no more money should be given to Fallon without council approval, given that the mayor, under city code, has paid the maximum amount allowed without a contract approved by the council.
Capt. Jeff Eddy of the Salvation Army said that the shelter, which will be created in a Salvation Army building at 11th and Jefferson streets recently sold to the city to make way for expansion of the 10th Street railroad corridor, will have sufficient room to quarantine people so coronavirus won't spread. Unlike last winter, when the city spent $50,000 on an overnight winter shelter, according to Fallon's report, the shelter this year will be open 24/7, with social service agencies onsite to offer help, Eddy says. "All of the agencies are playing a part," Eddy says. "We have a table set up for each one of them."
Josh Sabo, coordinator for the Heartland Continuum of Care, a consortium of social service agencies tasked with helping the homeless, says that both Memorial and St. John's will offer services at the winter shelter, which is set to shut down in March. Sabo said he doesn't disagree with Fallon's conclusions, but he also said that the report isn't surprising: For more than a decade, the federal government has been pushing for homeless people to be housed in scattered homes. "He's not saying anything new," Sabo said. The problem, he said, is money: There aren't enough resources available to realize Fallon's vision.
"John, during his time in town, he hoped to really help a lot of people address housing," Sabo said. "The reality is that housing resources are scarce."
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.