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Julie Benson helps the homeless in Springfield

Julie Benson founded Helping the Homeless in Springfield, IL eight years ago
Maureen McKinney
NPR Illinois
Julie Benson founded Helping the Homeless in Springfield, IL eight years ago

Julie Benson of Springfield says eight years ago God whispered in her ear to help the homeless. She has done so since, and recently Maureen McKinney interviewed her as part of our ongoing series, Unsheltered. Benson, the 63-year-old former Henson Robinson Co. worker, has won national and local awards for her efforts. She takes donations of funds and goods through her Facebook page, Helping the Homeless in Springfield, IL or by phone at 217-652-1307.

This is an edited, excerpted version of that discussion.

Tell me how your efforts with the homeless started ...

January 24 of 2016. I was on my way to church and God whispered in my ear that I was going to help the homeless people. I always thought when people said things like that, that they were either crazy or making it up, but God did speak into my ear. And I went to church and told my fellow churchgoers, and they said, ‘Well, what do you know about the homeless people.’ and I said, ‘nothing.’

And, so, I went home and started a Facebook page called Helping the Homeless in Springfield, Illinois. And I said, I'm going to try to help the homeless people. And I ended up for about a month, receiving hats, gloves, hand warmers, scarves, some basic things. Started on my dining room table.

I went downtown to try to find some homeless people. And of course, I didn't know who I was looking for. People started walking by me, and I just asked if they needed anything to keep warm. And, of course, quite a while, until they knew who I was and word spread, They're very skeptical. ‘How much are you charging for this stuff?’’ ‘I'm not charging anything. People have donated it. It's free. I'm here to give it out to help you out.’

Donations just started flowing in. It evolved into me retiring. Retired when I was 58. My retirement gift from work was a cargo van. So I started filling up the cargo van with donations and going downtown and passing out things.

Do  you have a sense of roughly how many people you've you have helped?

Oh, wow, hundreds. My part is, I make the connection between the people who want to donate and the people who want to receive. During COVID, for nine months, I had a meal train going, and, so, the community stepped up and made meals. I met them then I would go out and find the people and I started out making 30 and ended up by the time the temporary shelter opened for the winter We were feeding 70 people a day.

I have a part. And the people who donate have a part. Not all of them want to meet up with people, but their part is equally as important. Because I couldn't do this without the community. And I'm talking Springfield and all the little towns around. You know, I get donations from churches and organizations and individual people and people call me and say we've got clothing, we've got furniture, I have this whole network going on after eight full years of people contacting me reaching out to me, the whole networking thing, I match people up to each other.

While I'm kind of maybe you would call me the organizer, and I'm the person that things get funneled through. By no stretch is this is a me thing. It's a we thing. It's a God thing. First I go out seven days a week, I go out at all hours, I take food to people who are on the street, I take sleeping bags, blankets, you know long underwear, socks. Bombas sends me thousands of socks every year. and I am overwhelmed with messages and voicemails and posts on my Facebook page. ‘I have this. I have that. I have silverware, I have dishes, I have a bed, I have a TV.’

You know, I never call anybody and say, ‘can you do this’ Because I don't know what's going on in “their life. I post things on Facebook, it's totally at will. I don't solicit people for money. They send me money because they know that things are getting done. And I work with what I get. I have no monetary goal. Whatever I get, I work within those guidelines.

I don't purchase things that I get donated. And I'm very careful with money. I've always been very good with money. Some of the agencies will reach out to me, for instance, I'm kind of a Band-aid. I'm the person that people call when they want to go home. They don't want to live here anymore. They they're tired of being homeless, they've got family that have reached out to them. They want to go home. I've sent people to Florida and Tennessee and Arkansas and Michigan and Wisconsin and Arizona Amtrak tickets, bus tickets.

Most of the churches don't do those things. And the agencies don't do those things. And so they know that I will do those things. I can do things that some of the agencies can't do. And that's why they reach out to me for certain things. Everybody who's on the street has a different problem. And I don't want to be locked into just doing this, you know, within this box

Can you tell me some of the problems that the homeless people you've dealt with have had?

Some of them had sexual abuse by a family member or neighbor or somebody that that was trusted toward them. That's a huge, traumatic thing in people's lives. Women are raped on the street, they don't always come forward to get the police involved. because sometimes, the person who is doing the raping is so popular among the men, that the woman is afraid to come forward because of the backlash.

Fentanyl is terrible on the street. It's just known amongst the homeless community, you know, they grieve their own people dying young, middle age, not a lot of them are older. Alcohol abuse I've had some of them tell me that they drank when they were in their teens with their father. Who does that some of them did drugs with their parents, Who does that? People that are dysfunctional, so then society has to step up after that, and help people who have these problems.

Some of them are on the sex offender list. For different reasons, there's a lot of different variations of people on sex offender list. Some of them dated a girl that was 17 years old. And the parents were okay with it. But grandma didn't like it, and pressed the issue, and they go to jail for that and prison for that.

And then it follows them the rest of their life. Sometimes starting all over for people is really hard. I hear from them. I'm having a tough time starting over, I want to leave that life behind. But nobody will give me a chance. And they just keep getting knocked down. They can't get into housing for certain reasons. They can't get a job for for certain reasons. They can't get they can't even get into a sober living house, because sometimes there's not enough of them.

It's a problem starting all over again. And when you carry baggage with you, you know some people, that's why they turn to drugs, because it's momentarily it's their way of forgetting their problems. And it's it's tragic. It's I mean, we've got, we've got more homeless people in this town than we did when I started eight years ago. Yeah, we need to do better, We need to do better to get it manageable.

Generational dysfunction, where it just keeps happening because people don't know better. Some of the people that I work with don't know some basic life skills in order to function in a normal atmosphere. I never, never thought that there was so much trauma out there until I start working in the homeless community. It's rampant.

What makes you think that the homeless population in Springfield has increased?

Well, the number of phone calls that I get, and people heard just displaced constantly, and now it doesn't have anything to do with COVID. And I get at least one or two phone calls every day of somebody who's displaced. Some of them come here seeking help, because for years and years and years, people were told Springfield is the place to go. They've got services. You're more of a an individual here, as opposed to trying to get services in Chicago where you're just another number.

And so people will come here well, you know, we're, we're kind of overwhelmed to right now. Lots and lots more young people on the street than there ever were.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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