As of Nov. 1, an overflow center for the homeless is once again open at 221 N. 11th St. throughout the winter. The facility is part of a broader plan by the Heartland Continuum of Care to address homelessness in Springfield, and has become emblematic of the city's struggles with the issue as a tent city occupied by dozens of the unhoused sprung up around it while representatives from the city and Salvation Army spent months discussing how to make the building fully operational.
While the shelter was open as of Monday evening, a director still had not been named. The Salvation Army is also still seeking a night manager for the building and at least one other staff member. Jeff Eddy, a captain with the Salvation Army of Springfield, said an offer has been extended to a potential director, but applicants for the other positions are still being sought.
The shelter will operate as an overflow facility under a plan developed in concert with the Heartland Continuum of Care and other member organizations that are working to provide services. Under the plan, beds will become available to men when the men's shelter operated by Helping Hands has no more beds available, and will become available to women when the women's shelter operated by Contact Ministries has no more beds available, according to Josh Sabo, coordinator for the HCOC.
"The plan is for the overflow shelter to follow the same low-barrier approach as Helping Hands. There will be no drug or alcohol tests," Sabo said.
In years past, the shelter has been open 24 hours, but under the current plan will be closed each morning at 7 a.m., reopening at 1 p.m. to provide services. Eddy said the plan is to have mental health and domestic violence services available, among others, with an emphasis on referring people to programs that can provide long-term help.
"The purpose of this is so we can push people into programs so they can get help instead of letting them stay where they're at," Eddy said. "We want to do something meaningful for them. The idea is we get them in today, they work with a caseworker tomorrow, and we do whatever we need to do to get them on to the next level."
The timing of the shelter's hours is intended to coincide with the availability of other services throughout the city that can help people who have no home to go to during cold weather, Eddy said, citing the Washington Street Mission and St. John's Breadline, which operate during hours the overflow shelter is slated to be closed.
Ward 5 Alderwoman Lakeisha Purchase, who was appointed to represent the area where the shelter is located after the current plan approved by the Springfield City Council was put in place, said her concern as the shelter reopens is to keep communication open between the city and the shelter.
"Continuing to have open dialogue so that we are seeing accountability at every level possible is what I'm looking forward to, to do our monthly sit-downs to say where we are with the plan, what's the cost, what's the assistance you need from the city?" Purchase said.
Ward 2 Alderman Shawn Gregory, who represents parts of the city that are directly adjacent to the shelter in Ward 5, reiterated concerns he has brought up in the past about how the city plans to address the need for a shelter in the long term. The facility itself is eventually slated to be partially demolished to make way for railroad improvements.
"Where are we with getting a permanent solution? I think many of the partners, including Helping Hands, Salvation Army and Fifth Street Renaissance are working hard," Gregory said. "We need to dig in and make sure we get this done so we don't have to open another temporary warming center next year."
One immediate concern is what happens to tent city now. Chris Jones, Springfield Police Department's homeless outreach officer, said residents of tent city have been informed over the past few weeks of the shelter's reopening and the order that they vacate the premises, and that efforts will be made to help residents dispose of trash or unwanted items. As for the tents themselves, he said, if residents can't find somewhere else to store them, they'll be disposed of as well. As of Nov.1, the day the shelter opened, he told Illinois Times police were planning to have the lot vacated by Nov. 3.
Julie Benson, founder of the nonprofit Helping the Homeless, said that's a concern, as is the nature of the shelter's partial-day operations. For many homeless people, keeping track of time and maintaining appointments is difficult, she said, and following up on casework with people who may lack a phone or other things that provide stability in their life can be challenging. Mental health, she said, seems to her to be a greater concern this past year than it has been in the six years she has worked closely with the homeless people at the site.
Sabo and Eddy both roundly praised the efforts of HCOC member organizations in coming together to put the plan in place and get the shelter operational. Benson, who continues to work closely with the people living outside the facility, said she's still disappointed as another year passes with a temporary plan.
"Other than seeing a few of these people get off of the street and into housing, I don't see a whole lot of changes. That's frustrating," she said.