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Central Illinois social service agencies outline struggle to combat rise in rural homelessness

Two women stand behind a food service counter, posing for the picture
Melissa Ellin
Caroline McLeese and Tina Hammer both work at the Salvation Army Pontiac 360 Life Center. They say the need for a homeless shelter in Livingston County is becoming more apparent as the number of people unsheltered and precariously housed reaches an unprecedented high. Other rural counties in central Illinois are encountering similar issues.

Homelessness in McLean County has been getting more attention lately, as tent encampments that were once hidden migrate toward downtown, making the people living unsheltered — and the issue of homelessness — impossible to deny.

Social services staff in and around the county say that’s a good thing, particularly when the number of homeless people nationwide is climbing. People have moved closer to resources including the Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) shelter in Bloomington, and there are more eyes on the problem, which can lead to solutions.

But it’s not an option for everyone, and this increase in people who are or could become homeless goes beyond McLean County. Rural areas across Central Illinois are reckoning with this, as they realize they may not have an adequate social services infrastructure to combat the rise.

Dea Welsh is the director of personal and community development at the Lincoln-based Community Action Partnership of Central Illinois (CAPCIL), which offers low-income services to residents in six rural counties: DeWitt, Fulton, Logan, Mason, Menard, and Piatt.

“We have no shelters in any of those counties, and really just homeless supports in general are pretty lacking in all of them,” she said.

A woman stands next to a blue fabric frame with a "Community Action Partnership of Central Illinois" logo.
Melissa Ellin
Dea Welsh works with the Community Action Partnership of Central Illinois to help homeless and low-income families across six counties from Payette to Fulton. She said there aren’t enough homeless services resources in the area.

It’s a similar narrative throughout rural counties in Illinois. Livingston County doesn’t have a shelter either, and Woodford County has one shelter with six rooms for women and children only.

All of the counties have homeless people. Although Welsh and staff at other social service organizations say it’s not always something that’s recognized.

“A lot of it is people don't see it, so they assume it's not happening,” she said.

In Livingston County, Caroline McLeese works as a community assistance case manager at the Salvation Army Pontiac 360 Life Center, which has always served the homeless and low-income community but has started keeping a detailed record of everyone homeless in the community so there’s proof of the trend.

“I want to report this,” she said. “I want to let everybody know this is what's going on, this is what we need help with, and I'm just hoping out of that somebody's going to say, ‘I'll help you.’”

McLeese said there were record numbers of homelessness in May, with the 360 Life Center serving around 30 people per month.

“People think of homeless as people begging on the street or sleeping out in front of businesses — things that you see in big cities like Chicago,” she said. “You don't see a lot of that here, because people are finding places to go.”

Without a shelter, McLeese said the alternatives are stark. Many people try to stay with friends and family, which is referred to as doubling up and is typically not a permanent option.

Neither is the Fiesta Motel in Pontiac, which offers long-term stays, but McLeese said people tend to live there for months. As of late, she said it’s been completely booked, and the other long-term stay option — the Palamar Hotel — closed last year, so when people seek out emergency shelter services, expensive Airbnb-style are often the only alternative. This depletes the already limited funds McLeese said the Salvation Army gets to help.

One Airbnb can cost over $600 per month, which is about the average rent in Pontiac, according to estimates from rental websites like Apartments.com and Apartment Guide.

If none of those pan out, the only other option is to sleep on the streets.

Katie Miles and her five children were contemplating that reality very recently. The shelter where they’d been staying in Peru closes in May for seasonal cleaning, and they had nowhere to go. She’d already been shuttling her kids between Peru and Pontiac for school and other appointments because it was the closest shelter with availability.

McLeese secured funding to get the family into an Airbnb, but is still looking for a permanent fix.

When WGLT spoke to Miles, she had one week to find a new place and was too distraught to talk much about the situation. She did say she wants to get her kids out of temporary dwellings.

“My goals are to basically have a roof over our head that we can call home,” she said.

Miles — like many others in Livingston County without permanent shelter — is on the list for affordable housing through the Livingston County Housing Authority. McLeese said that list continues to grow, but housing isn’t opening up. Multiple people she’s helping remain in the same position they started in. Miles is sixth in line.

There are several reasons why people are increasingly becoming precariously housed, and it’s not an issue isolated to Central Illinois. Deb Howard, director of theUnited Way of Livingston County, said the bottom line is that the cost of living is too high. She is helping the Salvation Army tackle homelessness in Livingston County and said most people she encounters are ALICE, meaning Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

United Way created the ALICE movement in 2009 to raise awareness about the growing number of people struggling to eat or pay bills, but whose income is above the poverty level.

“We have working people that are living in cars that hold jobs,” Howard said.

The problem with being ALICE in Pontiac, Howard said, is that it excludes people from many funding streams with income thresholds.

“You get these ALICE people come through your doors, you can't help them with that poverty money,” she said. “You have to have free and clear funds to help those people, and the federal government doesn't issue free and clear funds. They issue poverty-level funds.”

A woman sits in an office chair, looking to camera. A desk, storage spaces, a printer and miscellaneous items can be seen in the background. A computer monitor is on.
Melissa Ellin
Director of the United Way of Livingston County Deb Howard.

Howard said homelessness is quickly becoming an epidemic in Livingston County. Normally, she said they’d have no problem sending people to shelters in surrounding areas, including Bloomington, Ottawa and Peoria, but recent attempts have failed. Everyone is at capacity.

HSHM CEO Matt Burgess said the shelter routinely gets calls from rural counties without shelters, and Home Sweet Home is more than willing to help. However, the only help available right now is a waitlist for services, and he said people call weekly to ensure they’re still on it.

If a spot opens up for someone from outside McLean County, Burgess said people may not come because it means leaving what they know.

“They might not have any historic connection to this community,” he said. “They don't know their way around town. They don't even know how to get from here to the library, which literally, you can see the front door of the library from the front door of Home Sweet Home, but if you're not from the community, there's a disorientation.”

When Earle Cox was suddenly kicked out of the place he’d been staying with friends, he said he couldn’t leave Pontiac. He’s disabled and needed to make sure he could get to doctor appointments and counseling sessions regularly. He said Pontiac is also where he wants to be.

“I was born and raised here,” he said. “This is home, regardless of the situation.”

A man stands in a kitchen. A counter with cleaning products and a built-in sink is behind him, as are cabinets, a refrigerator and a window facing trees.
Melissa Ellin
Earle Cox lived in a tent for several months in Pontiac. He said he didn’t want to leave Livingston County, despite there being no homeless shelter. “I was born and raised here. This is home, regardless of the situation,” he told WGLT.

So for several months, Cox lived in a tent, waiting for his disability benefits to come through and help him get back on his feet. Cox moved into Pontiac Towers apartment complex over six months ago and credits his benefits for helping him make rent payments, and the Salvation Army’s food pantry for ensuring he eats.

Another reason relocating is hard, Burgess said, is rural transportation options are bleak. Connect Transit even with its shortcomings is more robust than most transit in the region. Amtrak runs between Pontiac and Normal, but infrequently and at higher rates than most can afford. Show Bus — operated by McLean County — runs in Logan County but has a limited schedule.

At the Salvation Army 360 Life Center of Lincoln, case manager Rachel Oney said it’s easier to go to clients than have them come to Lincoln for services. She and the one other case manager at the center will often drive to the clients, meeting them at libraries or social service agencies willing to offer their space.

Woodford County has We Care Inc., a public transit that requires up to three days' notice for services.

“We don't have busses, we don't have taxis,” Brandi Gerber said.

Gerber is the executive director of Heartline and Heart House in Eureka. Heart House is the only homeless shelter located within county lines. It has six beds for women and children alone. Because of the way it’s set up and the clientele often being women fleeing domestic violence, Gerber said taking in men isn’t an option. She added the beds are consistently filled.

Heartline, which offers other services, such as food and rental assistance is also always in use, Gerber said. For people in poverty, Tazwood Community Services offers options like LIHEAP to Woodford County, despite its offices being in Pekin.

Gerber said Woodford County residents are often ushered to Peoria or other counties with shelters and additional services. She added that Woodford County needs more support for its homeless population. There are no mental health services, no public aid office and not enough places that accept Section 8 housing vouchers.

 A woman stands in front of building with a sign that says "Heartline and Heart House."
Melissa Ellin
Executive Director of Heartline and Heart House in Woodford County Brandi Gerber

Getting these services to the county feels like a fantasy, Gerber said. She pointed out that because Woodford County is small, its homeless population statistics aren’t always compelling to funders.

“If I presented a grant for public transportation and Peoria submitted a grant for public transportation, who would win that?” she proposed. “It would be Peoria because they're able to show more… numbers of people that would be utilizing those services.”

Lack of funding, dollar limits and spending deadlines are something every organization runs up against. Oney with Salvation Army in Lincoln said even when money stops coming through, crises don't stop.

“People still need help,” she said.

In the past three years, she said her facility has tripled the number of dollars spent to aid people, and that’s without all the residents' needs being met. In Lincoln County alone, Oney said 28 people went unsheltered due to a lack of resources last year.

Whether or not income for Salvation Army goes up in 2024, Oney said she expects the outgoing funds to continue increasing, as well as the number of people requiring services.

Welsh at CAPCIL said the ongoing lack of shelter in Lincoln makes it all the more difficult to connect with people for assistance.

“A lot of times if they come through the door and we can't find them a place, or they're truly, truly transient, we typically don't see them after a couple of days,” she said. “It's very hard for them to come back the next day.”

Burgess at Home Sweet Home in McLean County said the likelihood of getting a shelter near rural areas is slim.

“It's just such a costly way of trying to provide support to people that it's just not feasible, and not really viable in a small town, in the way that it is in a small city like Bloomington,” he said.

Livingston, Logan, Woodford and even more surrounding rural counties could all benefit from shelters, and despite the deck seemingly being stacked against them, a nonprofit in Logan County wants to get a shelter operational before the end of the year.

Kim Turner is the board chair for a nonprofit in Lincoln overseeing the development of Hope on 5th, which would be the first homeless shelter in the area. The goal, Turner said, is to have 25 beds for unsheltered people in and around Logan County.

Construction is ongoing on the old Lincoln College building Hope on 5th is repurposing, and Turner said it will be at least three months before the shelter opens. She said the first beds will likely go to veterans.

Turner added that collaboration among service providers is a major part of the project. She said Hope on 5th plans to invite Salvation Army, CAPCIL and other area social services to meet clients at the facility and will keep them all in the loop about people staying there.

“Having a roof over your head is extremely important, but it's not everything,” Turner said. “It doesn't fix all of your problems, so we want to be able to address those problems for overall stability.”

A woman stands outside. She's in front of bushes lining a brick building.
Melissa Ellin
Kim Turner is one of the people spearheading an initiative to get a homeless shelter up and running in Logan County. If it’s successful, it’ll be the only one.

Bloomington has two shelters and is still trying to find the right fix for its unsheltered community. Many people on the streets can’t live in congregate spaces, so government, public safety officials and community partners are working to find an alternative. It’s been an uphill battle since last year.

In rural communities, shelters are a place to start.

Tina Hammer at the Pontiac 360 Life Center said getting a shelter with wraparound services in Livingston County is her dream, but there needs to be space, funding and someone willing to operate it — all of which feel far away.

“Even if we were able to secure a shelter today, it would probably be a three-year plan before something was able to house anyone, which is a sad process,” she said.

Hammer admitted that taking on a shelter is daunting even to her, despite directing the only place in the county offering housing support services for homeless people. She’s confident someone will be up for the challenge, though.

“There is a leader out there,” she said.

She, McLeese and Howard are looking for that person.

Burgess at Home Sweet Home said every community is unique and solutions need to be catered to the population.

"My experiences has taught me that when a community really has a will to accomplish something, they find ways to make it happen," he said. "It might not look like it does in other communities, but solutions start to rise to the surface that maybe weren't recognized before."

And solutions — whether they're shelters or public transit — are desperately needed in rural communities right now. It's a matter of getting people on board.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.