Josh Sabo believes in the inherent dignity and worth of every person. He learned this while serving in ministry. Sabo was at Central Baptist Church for 15 years, including eight years as lead pastor, before devoting his energies to tackle homelessness in Springfield. He is the coordinator of Heartland Continuum of Care, which recently launched a strategic planning process to develop solutions to homelessness. Developing a strategy to address homelessness was one of the priorities in The Next 10, A Community Visioning Plan for Greater Springfield released May 28.
Two firms were selected to facilitate the process – Homebase, a nationally recognized expert on homelessness based in California, and LathanHarris, Inc., located in Ward 3 on the east side of Springfield. A broad base of partners is making this possible. Collectively the city of Springfield, Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, Memorial Health System, HSHS St. John's Hospital, Sangamon County, Springfield Housing Authority, SIU School of Medicine and United Way of Central Illinois are committing $160,000 towards this planning process. Homebase has a track record of helping communities identify barriers, refine their ideas and goals, determine funding sources and design solutions to end homelessness. LathanHarris has an understanding of Springfield and has experience working with vulnerable populations.
United Way of Central Illinois is the fiscal agent for this collaboration. John Kelker, United Way's president and CEO, says the participation of all the partners goes well beyond funding. He cites the significance of both the city and county participating, in addition to the private sector. John Stremsterfer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, says a community-built plan has the most opportunity for success. He says the direct service agencies will be "the doers of the plan." With all of them coming together, each will do better in their individual work.
A first step is to appoint a steering committee that is diverse and reflective of the community. Both Homebase and LathanHarris will assess needs through data analysis, focus groups, interviews and surveys. The consultants will help engage the community to understand the gravity of the issues and rally around solutions and implementation strategies. The intent is to have a draft strategic plan by the end of 2021, while concurrently identifying actions that can move forward now. Implementation will extend over the following 12 months.
Sabo says this is an "action-oriented" process. He credits the Community Foundation and United Way for focusing attention on issues of homelessness. Sabo says there is broad community consensus about the need to move forward, and there was a wellspring of commitment to make this one of The Next 10 priorities. Stakeholders coined the phrase "durable community consensus." That's what is lacking now. Sabo says there are many agencies in Springfield that are doing good work. However, each has a specialty, and although organizations work together, they are not aligned around shared strategic priorities. The goal of this strategic planning process is to unify around best practices and a shared vision.
Sabo says a core tenet of addressing homelessness is "housing first," rather than getting people ready for housing. "The best way to help is to provide safe and stable housing first, and then help with supportive services," says Sabo. Other communities have invested in both temporary housing and permanent supportive housing, but Springfield has not yet come together around the principle of "housing first."
In Rockford, for example, homelessness is "functional zero," meaning that a person who becomes homeless is helped back into stable housing within a month. The number of homeless people is estimated based on a snapshot at a point in time. In January 2020, there were an estimated 294 homeless individuals in Springfield.
Communities need to have a designated planning organization in order to apply to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for federal funding to address homelessness. The Heartland Continuum of Care serves as the primary HUD-designated body for homelessness planning. Community members can find out more and get involved through the Heartland Continuum of Care website www.heartlandcontinuum.com and Facebook page. "I hope our community will lean in and help us," says Kelker. He encourages citizens to take the time to become educated on the issues, listen to outside experts and share their views with the professionals leading this process.
"Caring for our most vulnerable is one of our biggest community priorities," says Stremsterfer.
"Homelessness is a complex challenge, but it is solvable," says Sabo. "We need to walk with people where they are and put the best possible systems in place to help them take the next steps."
Karen Ackerman Witter is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. She's written two recent stories about the Community Foundation's Next 10 initiative (Oct. 15, 2020 and May 27, 2021).