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Advocates Voice Concerns Over Treatment of Springfield Shelter-Goers; City to Investigate

Springfield Community Relations Director Juan Huerta gives a tour of the Winter Warming Shelter in October.
Daisy Contreras
NPR Illinois
Springfield Community Relations Director Juan Huerta gives a tour of the Winter Warming Shelter in October.

The City of Springfield’s inspector general will investigate claims of mistreatment of clients at the Winter Warming Center, Mayor Jim Langfelder informed the city council this week.

Still, faith leaders and those who volunteer at shelters took officials to task for not doing enough to address concerns at the emergency shelter.

On behalf of the city, the Salvation Army runs the Winter Warming Center, located at 1015 E. Madison Street, which provides a place to sleep and a meal for about 60 people who have nowhere else to go during the coldest months of the year.

Advocates for the homeless sat through hours of budget discussions for their turn to speak. They shared accounts of yelling and demeaning behavior on behalf of staff at the shelter and called for changes.

“When you can’t do something right when it comes to homelessness, get the people who know how to do it and work alongside of them,” said Dr. James Smylie, who counsels clients at a local men’s shelter. “And quit trying to do it by yourself and quit trying to cover what you’re doing when you know it’s not right.”

He and Rev. Susan Phillips, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church, offered to bring together professionals to help improve the situation at the warming center. Smylie said more training for staff and a community advisory board for the shelter are needed.

Captain Jeff Eddy, with the Salvation Army of Springfield, promised continued change at the emergency shelter, and defended his staff. He said case workers with the nonprofit visited the center regularly, and cameras were just installed to improve security.

“Every single problem that’s arisen, I have addressed and I’ve taken care of,” he said. “We’ve put other things in place, the cameras [are] one…. I just want you to know that I’m committed to fixing any problems.”

City officials pressed Eddy on why one employee, who also works for the city, is still on staff despite multiple allegations of mistreatment. Eddy says his human resources department did an investigation with the evidence provided.

On Thursday, Eddy confirmed to NPR Illinois that the employee no longer works at the shelter as of Wednesday. He did not elaborate on the employee's departure, explaining that it is a human resources matter.

NPR Illinois is not naming the employee as his name has not been released in a public investigation.

Council members urged the Salvation Army to remove him even temporarily, and expressed concern over his dual employment.

“I think that it puts a very dark light on the city of Springfield right now,” said Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner.

Delayed Response

Turner further questioned what she characterized as a delay in responding to concerns. She pointed out that Reginald Weatherspoon came to a City Council meeting in December bringing concerns about missing items, including medication, at the shelter. Teresa Haley, with the NAACP of Springfield, said she had heard complaints as well.

Phillips, the pastor, agreed the response had been slow, saying volunteers with her church sent a message to city officials in November with concerns about the center.

Turner pointed out that it wasn’t until a retired man, Joe O’Neill, who volunteered with the Salvation Army food truck, spent time at the shelter and wrote about his observations to the city council in January that officials took notice.

O’Neill said for weeks he’d heard rumors and secondhand accounts of mistreatment.

“I just felt the only way I could get the story, to the truth, to the meat and potatoes of what was going on was to just go in there and be invisible and watch and listen,” he said.

In his letter, O’Neill describes one staff member yelling at clients, telling them to sit down and shut up, and threatening to throw a client out in the cold if he talked back.

O’Neill sent the letter to Langfelder in January, and forwarded a copy to all city council members last week.

“I am a bit annoyed no one believed the homeless people but I’m glad you went in and they believed you,” Turner said to O’Neill.

Eddy, the Salvation Army captain, said he had only received two phone calls with complaints, which he said he’s addressed. And he said he’s heard good things about staff accused of wrongdoing as well as bad.

A Difficult Task

Eleanor Nailing, who works at the warming center, spoke in defense of her colleagues. She said it’s a difficult job to run the shelter “when you’re dealing with 50, 60, 70 people that’s got mental disorders, that’s coming in falling down drunk, but you don’t turn them away.”

The shelter is what service providers call low-barrier. Unlike others in town that require clients pass drug tests or breathalyzers or follow more rules, the warming center allows most in.

NPR Illinois talked with people at the Washington Street Mission, a community center that offers free coffee and laundry and shower services to those in need, who said they stay at the warming center at night. William, who declined to give his last name, made a similar argument to Nailing.

“If someone comes to the winter warming shelter – it’s usually because they’ve been kicked out because they’ve been drinking or doing drugs… [staff] has to be that way for stability,” William said.

Not all agree. “That don’t give you the right to abuse your power,” said Trevon Hamilton, who sat at the same table with William. Hamilton called the times he’s spent at the center in the last several weeks “unpleasant.” He said staff would use foul language. Then if they would hear him curse, they’d threaten to kick him out of the shelter for a few days.

Still, at the council meeting, Nailing said it was unfair to paint all staff in the same light. She also expressed concerns over safety. She said if two people get into a physical fight, the protocol is to call the police. But it can take up to a half an hour for them to arrive.

“If I or one of the staff members get in the middle of people fighting, and there’s bloodshed, then who would that fall on? No one is talking about those type of things,” Nailing said.

But Phillips, the pastor at First Presbyterian, stressed there are trained people in Springfield who can help.

Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley said she appreciates that running the shelter is difficult.

“There are going to be problems. I understand that. But they shouldn't be starting with staff,” Conley told NPR Illinois.

Conley said she has a lot of respect for the Salvation Army after it stepped in when the plans fell apart for the Center for Health and Housing — which would have provided emergency shelter services.

She said city officials, including the mayor and Office of Community Relations, bear some responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the people at the warming center.

Juan Huerta – the city’s director of community relations – told NPR Illinois he visits the shelter often, and thinks it’s going well. He says he’s brought any issues to the Salvation Army’s attention.

Still, Conley said she’s hearing complaints and a long-term solution is needed.

“This safety net needs to continue because unfortunately it’s the only net we’ve got,” Conley said.

Langfelder asked Smylie and Phillips to work with the Salvation Army on improving the center and on re-starting talks about the Center for Health and Housing.

More clarity about the claims of abusive treatment will take time. Langfelder said the inspector general’s investigation could take several weeks.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect the employment status of one Winter Warming Center employee. 

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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