After four hours of contentious debate Tuesday night, the Springfield City Council approved the location of a 24-hour center that would provide emergency shelter and health services to the homeless.
The vote Tuesday night was 8-2, with Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory and Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner voting against the measure.
Supporters of the Center for Health and Housing, to be placed at 521 S. 11th Street, say it will have multiple services under one roof and bring needed medical services to the city’s East Side.
The center will “move people who are now living on the street or in a shelter to housing throughout Springfield with the support services they need to be independent, healthy members in our community,” said Helping Hands executive director Erica Smith. “This strategy is working in other cities and it can work here too. It’s the right thing to do.”
Residents living near the site, those experiencing homelessness, religious leaders and health care professionals packed the city council chambers.
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Memorial Health System are partners on the project. Purchasing and renovating the building will cost around $3 million, and Smith has said they’ll need sustaining funding long-term.
Homeowners in the Pioneer Park Neighborhood Association argued against it. They emphasized they’re not against the goals of the shelter, but disagree with the location and that they were left out of the decision-making process. Mary Shanklin, who lives in the neighborhood, said she was disappointed after the vote.
“It’s just like we don’t have a choice – it’s just them making the decision and sticking it down our throats,” she said. “And I think that’s real unfair.”
Teresa Haley – head of the Springfield and Illinois NAACP chapters – told the council that putting the center that other residents don’t want in a majority black neighborhood is discrimination.
“Those of us who live in a concentrated area want to be heard, want to be respected and want to feel like we’re a part of the community,” she said. “Based on what I’ve heard the last few months, we’re not seeing that, we’re not hearing that, we’re not reading that, we’re not living that.”
Mayor Jim Langfelder urged a 30-day delay to the vote to find a compromise with social service advocates and neighborhood residents.
Roy Williams, with the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, made a similar argument during the public comment period. He said their organization is neutral because they had members supporting both sides.
“People who are the most impacted should have been at the decision-making table,” he said, adding that that is both the people living near the proposed center and those struggling with homelesness.
Gregory, who represents the area, offered a motion to delay it. Only Turner joined him in favor, and the motion failed.
Later in the evening, a few council members said they voted against the delay because it would have been the same discussion a month from now.
The public debate boiled over in the last few days, with robo-calls against the center going out to residents and city council members, as well as a billboard reading “Shame On You! Helping Hands A 24-Hr. Homeless Shelter Near Kids, Homes & Elderly” at Cook and 11th streets.
Donte Moore told the council he is homeless after he got in a car accident and lost his job. He said nothing is being done to help people in a situation like his.
“Homelessness is not a sickness, a mental illness, it’s a circumstance,” he said.
The vacant building is close to Lincoln Magnet School and Head Start pre-school program that the Springfield Urban League runs. An attorney for the league said the center posed a risk to children there.
Katharine Eastvold said she doesn’t live near where the center will be but her kids go to Lincoln Magnet School down the street.
“Mostly I feel comfortable in sending my children to school in the vicinity of this facility because I will know and my children will know that finally we live in a community that is taking a bold step toward not only just alleviating chronic homelessness, but eradicating it,” she said.
Smith and Joe Hurwitz, the developer for the project, told the council they could have the center open by December 1.