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Springfield Struggles To Protect People Who Are Homeless Amid COVID-19 Spread

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
Artwork from Springfield Art Association exhibit "Facing Homelessness"

On Wednesday, Erica Smith, the executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield, had a tough decision to make.

Washington Street Mission, which offers coffee, laundry and shower facilities, announced it is closing temporarily. St. John’s Breadline decided to hand out bagged lunches, instead of serving meals. Springfield’s Lincoln Library had closed its doors.

The closures follow new rules put in place by Illinois’ governor limiting the size of public gatherings and closing bars and dine-in restaurants. 

The hope is that it will help stem the spread of the new coronavirus by getting people to stay home and keep a safe distance apart.

But they are a challenge for people who now have nowhere else to go during the day. Smith said many have started congregating in the Helping Hands lobby.

At first, she said she limited the number of people in the lobby to 20 people, trying to balance keeping them out of the cold with public health guidelines. But she noticed dozens more people outside.

She said she consulted with her staff, those waiting and the 50 or so clients who are now staying at the shelter. She said for now, everyone is allowed in.

“It's really a struggle for us right now. And it's just not really something we can sustain,” Smith said.

Many are staying at the Winter Warming Center, the emergency shelter run by the Salvation Army and backed by the city. The shelter is open 4:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“This is something that we need to think about as a community,” Smith said. “Disasters and even disaster planning and precautions disproportionately affect people who are already vulnerable.”

The warming center is set to remain open through the end of the month, Salvation Army’s Captain Jeff Eddy confirmed in an email to NPR Illinois. Beyond that, it’s unclear.

Between 40 and 50 people are staying at the shelter every night, Juan Huerta, the city’s community relations director, told the city council Tuesday. Pritzker’s 50-person ban exempts shelters.

Huerta said the city is looking to possibly use another room in the current shelter building, to spread clients out. Now, they sleep on mats on the floor inches apart. He also said the city is hiring a cleaning service to disinfect the building each day.

In a blog posted to Helping Hands website , Smith wrote that one thing people can do to help is: “Tell anyone who will listen – and even those who won’t – that COVID-19 is yet another reason why we must house people who are homeless; not warehouse them in shelters. Insist that Springfield (and Sangamon County) develop a coordinated approach to homelessness that focuses on access to housing and health care.”

Call For Help

This week, Mayor Jim Langfelder asked the Faith Coalition For the Common Good, a coalition group of churches and other faith organizations, to ask their network for volunteers and to offer any available space for shelter for people in need.

The request frustrated Rev. Susan Phillips, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

“The mayor is asking churches to open our doors and provide services that we are not trained and equipped to provide in the midst of a pandemic,” she said.

She was vocal about recent problemsat the Winter Warming Center, with allegations that staff were abusive and disrespectful to clients. She attributed the problems in part to lack of training.

The Salvation Army has since hired a new manager for the emergency center.

Further, Phillips said in the time of a pandemic, this is a public health concern.

“The suggestion that we should gather together for day center or overnight shelter conditions is the opposite of what our health experts are recommending,” Phillips said. “So by doing so, we risk transmitting the virus, and that is the opposite of flattening the curve.”

Public health experts say flattening the curve – or reducing the number of people who get sick at a time – will reduce the strain on the healthcare system, and potentially save lives.

Philips shared her concerns on social media, and Langfelder’s office responded.

“The City was seeking help from the community to assist in this capacity. While not putting the work on one entity, we asked as a community to work together to help our most vulnerable during a time we've not experienced in our lifetime,” the Office of the Mayor responded. “This is for the short-term. For the long-term we are trying to identify spaces and people that may be available for worst case scenarios. We hope we won't need to utilize these community assets, but we need to create a database of inventory just in case.”

Langfelder said he called a conference call with the Continuum of Care, a consortium of social services agencies, to discuss new challenges with finding a place for people to go.

“Plans were discussed and as a group we are working together on a proactive plan for when this virus becomes even more wide-spread in Springfield,” wrote Amy Voils, who serves on the Continuum of Care and is executive director of M.E.R.C.Y. Communities, in an email about the call.

She said each agency is working on a plan about how to best serve their specific population. M.E.R.C.Y., for example, provides shelter and transitional housing for women with children. The group has banned visitors at its facilities and canceled its life-skills classes.

Langfelder said the police and fire chiefs, and the Salvation Army are working to address the needs of people at the emergency shelter.

For Phillips, the efforts are too little, too late.

“What we should have done was open the Center for Health and Housing last fall,” she said, referencing the medical clinic and shelter proposed by Helping Hands and medical providers that fell through. “Right now we are living with the ramifications of not opening it.”

‘Compassionate’ Policy

Meanwhile, Smith said her nonprofit has had to come up with new policies and contingency plans in the face of this public health crisis.

On the operations side, the shelter now allows those who are staying there to hang out there during the day. Before, clients had to leave in the morning and return every evening. They’re also cleaning and disinfecting more often.

Smith said she’s making an effort to talk with clients every evening and give updates about the spread of COVID-19. Over the weekend, she said one client asked if he would be kicked out if he contracted the disease.

“I explained to everyone, no, we would all band together, we would come up with a quarantine area,” she said. “And we would keep you here because we want to take care of you and we care about you.”

As other organizations develop their own policies around how to deal with the pandemic, Smith urged compassionate, but flexible policies.

“For a lot of people, we are the only place that they have to go, particularly in a time of crisis,” she said. “They're in crisis right now. And there's this other crisis laid on top of that.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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