Stay at home orders pointless for the homeless

Andrea Oliver

Andrea Oliver is homeless. She sits here in the sun outside Dream Center Peoria, 714 Hamilton Blvd. The center expects its overnight shelter to serve about 850 people this year. (PHOTO BY BILL KNIGHT)

As cold weather returns and an annual estimate of homelessness looms next month, advocates for the homeless are preparing for winter –– amid a worsening pandemic.

Meanwhile, the state’s health department in November issued new recommendations urging Illinoisans to stay home, which is literally impossible for those with no home.

Government aid –– most from federal COVID assistance, was helpful, but it’s come and gone. The absence of more assistance, plus questions about the extent of the problem linger as people persevere through the coronavirus and homelessness is extending into rural areas.

“Being a congregate-living situation, we have had to really step up with following the strictest guidelines of social distancing, wearing Personal Protective Equipment and sanitizing constantly,” says Kristy Schofield, director of homeless & housing at Dream Center Peoria. “We have been vigilant and as a result have had very few cases in the shelter.

“Our numbers have surprisingly been lower,” she continues. “We attribute this to the moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs. We believe when these safeguards end, we will see a huge jump in numbers.”

Kate Green, executive director of Home for All Continuum of Care, which works with the Heart of Illinois United Way in Peoria, agrees.

“COVID has touched every aspect of our lives, and it has made no exception for those experiencing homelessness,” she says. “From a lack of access to general daily resources due to the shuttering of businesses and public spaces, to the challenges providers have faced in maintaining adequate staffing, the impact is felt broadly. I can use a couple examples:

“Our providers are focused on gaining access to stable housing for clients. One of the barriers that many individuals experiencing homelessness face is personal identification. While case managers are adept at working through the process at the Social Security office and DMV, limited hours at those services due to COVID has caused a major disruption.

“While the Continuum has allocated substantial funds to providers from the CARES Act to assist in re-housing efforts, there is a shortage of available units,” she adds. “The eviction moratorium has had a few unintended consequences, one of which is that landlords are leery of accepting new tenants because they do not have recourse if the tenant does not pay. As such, there are units that are sitting empty and the inventory of available units is very low.”

The lack of housing may be worse, but it’s not new.

Five years ago, the Peoria Housing Authority’s 82-page “Framework Strategy for Redevelopment” said, “Too many families [are] at risk of being homeless … because they cannot afford to spend more than 30% of their adjusted gross income on housing and utilities.”

The National Coalition for the Homeless blames drastic cuts to federal affordable housing programs in the 1970s and ’80s and says the ultimate answer is providing housing.

“Housing represents the fundamental base-solution to the problem of homelessness,” the Coalition reports.
“The lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing-assistance programs has led to high rent burdens, overcrowding and substandard housing, which has not only forced many people to become homeless but has also put a growing number of people at risk.”

Journal Star reporter Andy Kravetz on Nov. 9 summarized local government’s direct and indirect roles to try to help non-governmental organizations.

Organizations from Dream Center and United Way to Jolt Harm Reduction, the Peoria Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army, plus independent, individual efforts, are stepping up, Green tells the Community Word.

“Government traditionally entrusts the work of direct service to the non-profit sector, she says. “That approach has held true during COVID as governments work to identify funding and allocate those funds to service providers who are subject-matter experts and trained in evidence-based practices.

“A great example comes from the City of Peoria, which turned to the Continuum of Care to propose allocation of the additional Emergency Solutions Grant funds that came through the CARES Act,” Green continues. “Part of those funds will be used for operational costs of the Continuum’s first mobile hygiene unit. While the need for mobile laundry, bath and shower facilities has always been an aspiration for the Continuum, the need became more acute due to COVID. Through the braiding of other funds to meet the capital costs of the mobile unit, the Heart of Illinois United Way partnered with Phoenix Community Development Services to bring this dream to reality.”

The reality of the problem remains unclear, however.

United Way’s Continuum of Care says the number of homeless people in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties is 285, with just 15 of that total “on the streets.”

Dream Center, which in 2014 served 365 individuals and families in its overnight shelter, anticipates this year’s clients will more than double.

“Our numbers have risen since 2014 as we have expanded our services to 24 hours a day and completed a $1.3 million expansion of the shelter,” Schofield says. “We are looking at serving 850 people this year.”

If there’s a disconnect, some see flaws in the yearly Point in Time (PIT) count of the nation’s homeless population which is released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty cites a study using administrative data from homeless service providers that the actual number of homeless individuals is 2.5 to 10.2 times greater than what’s reported by the Point In Time count.

“I have always found it difficult that the PIT count is done in January,” Schofield says. “I attribute the lower numbers to the fact that during the coldest months there is a tendency for families to allow the homeless to stay with them. As soon as the weather warms our numbers jump higher very quickly.

“I feel the actual PIT numbers should be gathered in July when we have our highest numbers.”

Elsewhere, an overlooked population may be living in cars, vacant structures or worse in small towns.

“HUD estimated in 2019 there were about 100,000 homeless people living in rural America,” report Jamie Fields and Katie Surma from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. “But that same year, the nonprofit Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness reported the number of homeless students alone was more than 162,000.”

Green concedes the crisis isn’t confined to cities, but it’s difficult to bridge the geographic gap.

“There is a struggle to meet the need within the rural setting when the demand for these services is relatively low in comparison to the urban core,” she says. “The Continuum’s greatest challenge in terms of the dichotomy of urban vs. rural is that we have a tremendous infrastructure within the core of the region, but those experiencing homelessness in rural areas might not be willing to leave their network and community to come into Peoria to receive services or seek shelter.”

The level of the problem, if not precise numbers, is obvious, even as a crisis within a crisis, according to Peggy Bailey and Douglas Rice in a 10-page report from the Center for Housing Policy:

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have brought to light the fundamental role housing plays in people’s lives and the life and death implications when they cannot afford the rent,” they write. “Even before the pandemic, millions of individuals and families were homeless or struggling to pay the rent; the health and economic crises have deepened these problems. Recognizing this, policymakers must include comprehensive housing assistance in the next COVID-19 relief package, prioritizing aid for people with the most severe housing needs.”

People need places to stay.

Then they can stay home and be safe.

Ideas to help the homeless

The Center for Housing Policy proposes several actions to meet current homelessness.

“Helping people who are experiencing homelessness is always challenging, but the pandemic has multiplied these challenges and made them more urgent to meet,” wrote Peggy Bailey and Douglas Rice in a recent report suggesting:

  • Increase homelessness assistance for state and local agencies to expand safe, non-congregate shelter options, revamp facilities to prevent the virus’ spread, and provide services to help people remain housed.
  • Reconfigure existing shelters to improve the ability of staff and clients to socially distance.
  • Help people experiencing homelessness move from the streets and congregating in shelters into safer, non-congregate housing, including temporary lodging in hotels.
  • Increase outreach to people living on the street to improve access to needed health care or other support.
  • Continue efforts to help individuals and families with children quickly move into more stable, permanent housing.

“There is a justified concern that some communities’ efforts that began prior to the pandemic to quickly house people experiencing chronic homelessness, people fleeing domestic violence, or people with disabilities leaving institutional care, have stalled or will stall due to an inability to locate affordable long-term housing and housing agencies’ concerns about future rental assistance funding,” they wrote.

Some cities are taking local initiatives. For example, Philadelphia is restoring unlivable vacant housing units in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood and investing in a non-profit community land trust to co-manage 50 properties with its housing authority and to build small villages in coming months.

Numbers to consider

On a given night last year, 567,715 people experienced homelessness in the United States, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development annual Point-in-Time count. The Trump administration’s Council of Economic Advisers agrees with those numbers.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the numbers of homeless include:

  • 171,670 people in families, including children.
  • 396,045 single individuals.
  • 96,141 individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness.
  • 37,085 veterans.

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