Putting puzzles together

Funds allocated for homeless coordinator

click to enlarge Fifth Street Renaissance is located at 1315 N. Fifth St.
Fifth Street Renaissance is located at 1315 N. Fifth St.

Thanks to inherited money, Jane Ford can live comfortably and travel. But she says that there's more to life.

What, she thought after realizing that her own future is secure, should I do with money I don't need? Springfield discovered her generosity last month, when Ford and the Sommer Family Fund, a charity created by a family best known for starting a chain of Harper gas stations and convenience stores, announced gifts to pay for someone to coordinate agencies that help the homeless.

"I'm a social justice person," Ford explains. "We've got about 250 people who are truly homeless. The amount of people who are close to homeless are double that, or more."

Ford and the Sommer family have committed $40,000 to paying the salary for a person who will coordinate services and help find money for the homeless. The City of Springfield has agreed to pay an additional $15,000, and Ford says she's hoping that federal grants might boost the salary to as much as $70,000.

"There's nobody to reach out to the community to do any kind of coordinated effort or to educate people about the homeless," says Ford, who spent 24 years teaching at Little Flower School and is now retired. "You have to change peoples' hearts. You have to educate. ... Homelessness is an issue for the whole community. There's as many reasons for homelessness as there are stars in the sky."

But education, Ford says, is just part of the equation.

Ford has long attended meetings of the Heartland Continuum of Care. The group includes more than 20 organizations, including social service agencies, health care providers and others with a goal of helping the homeless, but there is, she says, insufficient coordination to ensure folks in need get the best care in the best ways, nor is there anyone assigned to apply for federal grants and perform other administrative tasks that could help people who live on the streets or in shelters. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gives grants to such multi-agency groups, and Ford says she believes Springfield might be able to get more than its realized in the past.

While hearts are in the right place, Ford says, no single agency can be expected to evaluate how services fit together. "The continuum itself has not functioned well, in terms of not having a coordinator and in terms of not having internal coordination and consistency between all the agencies," Ford says. "Our continuum has functioned, just not as well as it could with a coordinator."

Fifth Street Renaissance, which provides low-income housing, testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and otherwise helps folks at risk of becoming homeless, will employ the coordinator. The Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln put the gifts and city money together to form the plan.

The coordinator will have little, if any, direct contact with the homeless, says John Stremsterfer, president and chief executive officer of the community foundation. Think of it as a traffic cop at an intersection of homelessness, directing money and services. "The ultimate goal is to get homes for people," he said.

Conversations about creating a paid coordinator position began about a year ago, Stremsterfer said. The implosion last fall of a proposal to create a center for the homeless has built some momentum, he said. "I think it's brought a lot more attention to the issue in the community, certainly," he said. "I hear a lot more people asking, 'What can we do to help?'"

While nearly two dozen agencies help the homeless in Springfield, Stremsterfer said, there was no obvious entity to apply for a federal grant that recently became available. Val Yazell, Springfield economic development director, ended up filling out the paperwork, he said.

"It really is, who's available and will raise their hand," Stremsterfer said. "When someone says they'll fill it out, their agency might not get a dime."

Stremsterfer said he hopes to have someone hired in February. And there is now no commitment to fund the job after one year. Ford says gifts from private donors are a starting point.

"This gives people a chance to figure out a more sustainable source of funding for the person in that position," she says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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