HERRIN — In March, Peggy Russell informed about 20 people who had been living in a homeless shelter here that they would have to find somewhere else to stay. The nonprofit’s board made the decision after years of battling dwindling private donations, untimely payments from the government and rising costs, said Russell, who had served as the executive director of the Williamson County Family Crisis Center since 1994.
“We managed to find a place for everyone to go,” she said. “But it was sad when it closed. We served over 4,000 shelter nights a year. It was really a challenge to do this. But we did help people.”
The 18-bed emergency shelter served people in crisis for 35 years in Herrin before shutting its doors on March 31. At the time, every bed was spoken for, Russell said.
The shelter’s closure throws into sharp relief the economic challenges facing social service providers across Southern Illinois. Despite a steady demand for services, competition has grown steeper for the government grants and private funding keeping them afloat.
Russell said a “perfect storm” of financial challenges finally forced the Herrin shelter to this difficult decision. That includes the long lag in reimbursement payments for emergency shelters that flow through the state via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Additionally, the United Way of Southern Illinois announced in March that its own fundraising challenges meant it would have to indefinitely stop making payments to the local programs it had traditionally supported. This followed other private fundraising challenges, she said, though Russell was careful not to lay blame.
One of the difficult realities of living in a region with a struggling economy, she said, is that the private individuals and institutions that can afford to give get stretched thin by so many requests for assistance from charitable organizations. The rising minimum wage in Illinois was another factor, she said.
While other regional shelter directors say they are not at risk of closure, they also are no stranger to financial woes and worrying about their bottom lines. “I don’t sleep well,” said Patty Mullen, executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries in Carbondale.
Mullen said her nonprofit has “been on thin ice quite a few times in the past six years” but has thus far managed to keep operational. Good Samaritan Ministries runs a 26-bed emergency shelter, as well as 10 transitional apartment units where qualified families can live for up to 24 months while they seek more permanent housing solutions.
“June, July, August is when we start to see our funds dwindle to the point where we’re having to make cuts to employee hours, to programs, and services,” she said, “and yet in 35 years, we’ve never closed our doors.” She credited the generosity of area citizens who frequently give when budgets get tight.
Russell said that the face of homelessness in Southern Illinois has changed in recent years. When she started out two decades ago, most people the shelter served came to them because of an unexpected financial emergency such as the family’s primary breadwinner losing a job, or an unexpected medical emergency and resulting bill. In more recent years, Russell said she served an increasing number of families facing chronic economic challenges. Often times, these families came to the shelter because they had been doubled up with friends or family, but then they were forced to go. That could be because it was an unhealthy situation for children, or because they’d been asked to leave by the host family.
This is the untold story of homelessness and housing instability in Southern Illinois, she said. And people aren't as aware of it because it doesn't look like traditional homelessness, with people camped under overpasses or on park benches.
HUD funds most homeless programs on a regional basis. In this area, the funding flows through the Southern Illinois Continuum of Care, a network of providers serving people who are homeless or those at risk of homelessness across 27 counties. Every year, HUD requires these networks to participate in a nationwide “point-in-time” count of the homeless population, the results of which are figured into a formula that helps determine funding needs for providers within the network.
This year, volunteers counted 294 homeless individuals — roughly the same number as a decade ago, said Sue Castleman, executive director of BCMW (Bond, Clinton, Marion, Washington counties) Community Services, and president of the Southern Illinois Continuum of Care.
Those numbers, however, only include people who volunteers identified during the January count residing in shelters or transitional housing, or who are on the street. It doesn’t include the families living doubled up in less-than-ideal, or possibly even dangerous situations.
“When you have a family living with another family or friends, they may have a roof over their head, but they may be homeless,” Russell said. “If that person says ‘Get out,’ they have to leave, and stress levels go up.”
The director of the 65-bed Lighthouse Shelter in Marion said that one of the biggest challenges to helping people who come to the shelter in need of permanent affordable housing is the severe lack of it regionally. “We can bring the homeless in all day long, but trying to find affordable housing that is safe housing, for lack of a better word, that’s probably one of the biggest obstacles I’ve noticed in Southern Illinois,” said Teresa, Lighthouse's executive director (she asked that her last name be withheld).
“We can help people get a job, but trying to match income to housing is very difficult.”