As a plan forms for sheltering the homeless during winter, outreach workers and police last week visited Tent City as part of an attempt to count the number of people living outside in Springfield.
Beyond simply counting, the city and social service providers want to know why people have nowhere else to sleep and what sorts of health issues might be in play. The hope is to land federal funding to provide housing throughout the city for up to nine months for each person while more permanent arrangements are made. Written surveys are being used to establish need.
How old are you? If the answer is 60 or older, that's worth a point. Additional points are awarded based on answers to more than 20 other questions. During the past three years, how many times have you been homeless? How many times have you been to the emergency room or jail during the past six months? Ever been beaten up while homeless? Have you ever been kicked out of an apartment or shelter due to mental illness or a past head injury? Are you pregnant? Do you have chronic issues with your kidneys, liver, stomach, heart or lungs? To some degree, it sounds like a misery index, and the more points accrued, the higher the priority for housing. There are no essay questions.
"The goal is to make it not subjective," said Josh Sabo, coordinator for the Heartland Continuum of Care, a consortium of social service agencies established as a conduit for federal funding. "That's where the yes-no comes from." Four days after the visit to Tent City, Sabo said he did not yet have a homeless head count.
A man sipping beer outside a tent who asked that his name not be used said that he filled out the survey even though he likely could get help from a local church where he works as a handyman. He said that he's embarrassed by his situation and doesn't want the pastor to know his plight.
Mayor Jim Langfelder, who's come under fire from city council members for allowing Tent City at the intersection of 11th and Madison streets, said that he pushed for the head count, with help from police, in hopes of securing federal housing money earmarked for pandemic relief. He defended Tent City after last week's city council meeting.
"Is it an ideal situation? No," the mayor said. "Is it unsightly? Yes. Is it as unsightly as being in front of our businesses or sprawled out throughout our city? I don't think so. I think it gives us an opportunity, which we have to take advantage of, of finding out who's there."
Langfelder said he told police chief Kenny Winslow to send officers to Tent City along with social workers because he wanted answers.
"I said, 'I want you to get with the continuum, and everybody go in there and find out what's happening and who's there and get their contact information,'" the mayor said. "Something as simple as a phone number is not even in the ... system. How can you get someone housed or find out where they're at if you don't have their phone number?"
The count comes amid rancor between the mayor and social service providers who have bristled at Langfelder hiring John Fallon, a Chicago-area consultant with years of experience in housing the homeless, to assess the situation in Springfield and provide advice. Fallon, who was at Tent City last week while surveys were completed, has upset local social service providers and some civic leaders by criticizing agencies, saying that the capital city is missing chances to house the homeless. The mayor last month gagged Fallon, saying that he can't talk to the media without prior approval.
Fallon has invited city council members to speak with him but has received a chilly response, with council members telling him that they have nothing to discuss until there is a plan ready for a vote. Last week, Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory told colleagues that they should listen to Fallon, who he said has good ideas.
"He's a little rough at times – I can see how he can maybe rattle some cages and things," Gregory said. "Whether we like it or not, the mayor went out and spent some money for this guy to come in and be a consultant to us. I don't want that money to be wasted. ... That money's going to go to waste because everybody's got an ego, everybody's tripping."
A plan to buy a vacant Salvation Army complex across the street from Tent City for $2.94 million is now before the city council. Part of the facility, which includes a kitchen, warehouse and sleeping quarters large enough for 80 people, is needed for railroad consolidation on 11th Street, which borders the property. The mayor and social service agencies are eyeing the facility as a winter homeless shelter that would provide adequate room for social distancing while keeping people warm.
While Fallon has dismissed the need for a homeless shelter, saying that the needy can be otherwise housed, the mayor has said some type of shelter is needed. But Langfelder praised Fallon after last week's council meeting.
"He's moved the ball forward, a couple tackles here and there, but he has moved the ball forward," the mayor said. Australian rules football or rugby?
"I think it's rugby," Langfelder replied.