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Springfield's Winter Warming Center Closes

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.

Springfield’s emergency winter shelter is closing. The Winter Warming Center - operated by the Salvation Army and funded by the city of Springfield - opened last October to provide shelter for those who don’t have another place to stay during the winter months.

When social distancing rules went into place to stem the spread of COVID-19 in March, the emergency shelter moved from its usual location on Madison Street to the Salvation Army’s community center on Clear Lake Avenue.

More than 60 clients were staying there at the time, according to Captain Jeff Eddy with The Salvation Army. But he said the number gradually dwindled.

“Some got housed. Some left,” Eddy said.

Eddy said fewer than 20 people were still using the services, and it made more sense to move most to another shelter in town which has space, and provide temporary housing to a handful of others.

“It seems kind of crazy to duplicate services,” Eddy said.

The emergency shelter usually operates from November through March, but the Salvation Army continued to operate it through mid-May to address the needs of homeless in Springfield during the pandemic.

Some funding came from the city of Springfield. The Salvation Army also got an emergency grant through the Continuum of Care of up to $130,000 to pay employees to staff the shelter and buy supplies and food for clients. Eddy said they also used some of the money to pay for temporary housing at hotels for families with children who could not stay at shelter.

Helping Hands, the men’s shelter in Springfield, provided staffing and programming during the day, as well as case management. Fifteen of the people who were staying at the Winter Warming Shelter will now go to Helping Hands.

Erica Smith - Helping Hands’ executive director – said she appreciated the collaboration with the Salvation Army.

“It was a significant, unexpected expense and project for their organization,” she said. “And I think it's wonderful that we were able to sit down and work together.”

Inspector General’s Report

The Winter Warming Center came under scrutiny early this year after reports of alleged verbal abuse by a staff member became public. Advocates for those experiencing homelessness brought the concerns to the city council.

Eddy defended the center and its staff, and promised to follow-up on the claims. The staff member, who is also a city employee, was terminated from the shelter job in February.

Mayor Jim Langfelder called for an investigation by the city’s inspector general, which was published in April.

The “most concerning” finding was that complaints about the shelter were first brought to the city council in December, but the staff member wasn’t terminated until February.

Eddy told NPR Illinois he was not made aware of the complaints in December, and acted as soon as he was informed.

The report also stated that it was concerning that the city's community relations director, Juan Huerta, made it appear as if the city were running the shelter, when the Salvation Army was responsible for shelter operations.

“The investigation was also complicated by diametrically opposed observations by a homeless advocate and video statements made by a number of Center clients, observations by faith-based food providers and difficulties experienced by medical providers on the one hand, and statements from Respondent’s co-workers and other members of the homeless community stating opposing views,” the report reads.

Future of Warming Center

Eddy said the Salvation Army "would consider" a request from the city to run the emergency shelter again next winter.

Over the last several years, Helping Hands and the Salvation Army traded the responsibility.

But Smith reiterated that Helping Hands would not run it.

“The data shows that the shelter is not sustainable, operationally or financially… It's very expensive to run,” she said. “The shelter is not adherent with what we're trying to do as an agency, which is (to) provide services that address root causes of homelessness and help people become housed or avoid homelessness.”

Helping Hands, with initial support from Memorial Medical and SIU Medicine, proposed a Center for Health and Housing in the fall, which would provide shelter and medical and mental health services.

After objections from the neighborhood where it was to be located, the project fell through.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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