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Close your eyes for a moment and think of one of Southern Illinois’ many small towns.

Chances are your mind’s eye conjured up pictures of modest-sized houses on tree-lined streets, centered in neatly-groomed yards. And, that is the reality for most people in the region.

However, that idyllic existence is far from universal.

Drive through downtown Carbondale early in the morning. The streets will be jammed with commuters heading to Southern Illinois University, bankers, lawyers and clerical workers hurrying to get to work — and, more than likely, several homeless persons pushing shopping carts piled high with all their worldly possessions.

Carbondale is hardly alone in that regard.

The homeless sometimes camp in the woods adjacent to the Tunnel Hill State Bike Trail in Harrisburg, eliciting images of Hoover Towns that dotted the American landscape during the Great Depression. Or, just travel a few blocks off the beaten path of business districts in Marion, Pinckneyville, Eldorado and Anna, not all the homes look like the American middle-class perfection depicted in 1960s sitcoms.

It may not be readily apparent, but Southern Illinois has a housing problem lurking just below the surface. We are reminded of that reality with increasing frequency.

A couple weeks ago, this newspaper ran a story concerning the opening of a warming center in Carbondale. The center will give the homeless, or those without heat in their homes, a place to escape the bitter cold of winter.

There are just 24 rooms available at the shelter, but that means at least 24 Carbondale residents will not be exposed to potentially life-threatening temperatures.

Last week, this newspaper ran a story about an apartment building in West Frankfort being condemned by the city, forcing residents to evacuate almost immediately. The story outlined hazardous conditions in the apartments — rotting floors, inoperable furnaces, leaky roofs, broken windows and vermin infestation.

And, of course, this newspaper has reported extensively on abhorrent conditions in public housing, particularly in Alexander County. The issue in Alexander County was exacerbated this year by unprecedented flooding and FEMA’s decision to deny aid to individual home owners.

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So, what’s the cause? What’s the solution?

The causes are varied.

The demise of the coal industry and manufacturing has hit Southern Illinois hard. People, and wealth, are leaving the region. Abandoned homes are allowed to deteriorate. Landlords aren’t able to collect the kind of rent that allows them to make necessary repairs.

Some cities have been proactive in having sub-standard buildings demolished. Several years ago, Harrisburg aggressively went after property owners, resulting in dozens of unsafe eyesores being razed. Driving through Southern Illinois, it’s obvious many more buildings need to be demolished.

All cities and towns certainly have ordinances on the books requiring landlords and home owners to keep their buildings in livable condition.

Unfortunately, most communities are cash-strapped and municipal employees are stretched to the limit — they don’t have the resources to keep tabs on derelict properties and either lack the resources or commitment to see the buildings demolished.

But, that is just one side of the problem.

As the situation in West Frankfort illustrated clearly, where do the displaced citizens go? Granted, virtually every community has public housing, but being forced to relocate within a week’s time is challenging under the best of circumstances.

Substandard housing and homelessness is an issue for every community in Southern Illinois. It may not be a burning priority in most towns, but it is an issue that every town must address, at least to the extent of developing emergency protocols to assist displaced residents in finding shelter.

Lives depend on it.

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