With frost around the corner, it’s time to stop acting like children and start making plans for winter.
No one wants a repeat of 15 years ago, when Michael Moffett, recently released from prison after stabbing his father and violating parole, was found frozen under the Clearlake overpass. Helping Hands was full, and Salvation Army had told him that, after 30 days, he needed to leave. He died without a penny in his pockets, or ID. They used fingerprints to learn his name. His death was supposed to change things.
All these years later, no one has announced solid plans for emergency shelter should another polar vortex hit – the windchill dipped to 50 below last winter. We’ll probably muddle through with a commandeered building, or better yet, a network of schools and churches spread evenly throughout the city so folks with no place to sleep can be quartered a few here, a few there, in basements, as opposed to being warehoused by the dozen – that way, all neighborhoods might understand the need while sharing the burden.
Good luck with that.
If the fiasco on 11th Street has reminded us of anything, it’s that no one wants homeless folks as neighbors, and East Side neighborhoods can fight back. Everyone wants to blame Mayor Jim Langfelder for homeless shelter plans imploding, and this isn’t the first time. During Langfelder’s first term, he stopped work and leveled a building that was being turned into a homeless shelter to make room for a parking lot we didn’t know we needed, then used $1.6 million that was supposed to be spent on the canceled homeless shelter to create a community center we didn’t know we needed, all with city council blessing. Now, a homeless shelter approved by the city council isn’t going to get built and aldermen are pointing fingers instead of facing facts: It was a bad idea that should have died long before it reached the council.
If it wasn’t a bad idea, why isn’t it going ahead? After all, the council has blessed it, and, if it is such a good idea, surely it can survive lawsuits. Too late, Langfelder realized he blew it, raising doubts while aldermen demanded full-throated support. The mayor, at least, has realized his mistake, telling reporters after last week’s council meeting that, if he could do it all over again, he would have taken a more active role instead of trying to stamp out a fuse he lit himself – his staff helped pick the site -- before it reached the firecracker.
Langfelder and aldermen aren’t the only ones who have erred. Backers dug a credibility pit by selling the center as a consolidation of services that already exist in the area, even though a new detox center was quietly planned for the premises. Such a place is needed, somewhere, but proponents should have been upfront instead of telling people that this was just relocating things that already exist.
To call Ed Curtis, Memorial Health Systems CEO, the man behind the curtain would be a stretch, but the project can’t work as it should without Memorial, which would provide mental health treatment. Within days of Memorial pulling out, Helping Hands officially killed a dead horse, saying it didn’t have financial support.
“Memorial Health System is not going to get involved in something when we don’t have a united front in our community, in terms of what’s the right strategy,” Curtis told the State Journal-Register. “I have no plans to recommend to my board to proceed when I feel like there’s been a lack of leadership by the mayor.”
That wasn’t what Curtis said when he addressed the mayor and aldermen minutes before the council approved the shelter on an 8-2 vote.
“Mayor, on behalf of Memorial Health System, you have my personal commitment, our health system’s commitment, to work with you on this project -- just like when I was asked five years ago to help with the boys and girls club, we stepped up,” Curtis said. “We’ll step up and help the community. Period.” With that, he earned the loudest applause of the evening. Curtis declined an interview request. Memorial has issued a written statement saying that it still wants to help, once a site is chosen: “With that united front, our community can make great strides in serving the needs of our homeless.”
It’s been obvious since the project was unveiled last summer that the community wasn’t united, that this was a case of great idea, wrong place. Everyone, also, should realize that we have the mayor that we have, nothing can proceed without the city and the mayor is meeting with community groups and otherwise doing what he should have done months ago.
Langfelder tells me that he recently toured the shuttered Vibra hospital on North Walnut Street, a few blocks west of Memorial Medical Center. The mayor says it's too soon to tell, but, at first glance, that might be a better place than 11th Street.
Most everyone has screwed up, and so everyone should move on. If someone has a better plan than Langfelder, they should lay it out. And soon.
Helping Hands has said that it won’t run a winter shelter in partnership with the city, as it has in past years. The open floor plan used before isn’t safe, executive director Erica Smith has said, and so Helping Hands will collaborate with other agencies to find beds. Hopefully, that will work out better than it did 15 years ago. And, so we won’t forget, Springfield’s new homeless shelter, if it is ever built, should be named the Michael Moffett Memorial Home.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.