• Erica Smith

WWC 102: Why more is not necessarily better

(This is part two in a 3-part blog about Springfield’s seasonal homeless shelter. Part 1 examined what the WWC currently is and who uses it; Part 3 will discuss challenges facing the WWC and why we believe a better option must be created now.)

How much does it cost to operate the WWC? How is it funded?

For the past three years, Helping Hands has been the sole organization to operate the WWC. The cost to staff the WWC for a season – five months -- is about $57,000. When you add in all the additional costs to operate, such as: supplies, administrative services, support services (mental health providers, counselors), etc., the annual operational cost to run the WWC as a seasonal shelter is around $70,000. This number does not include building/facility costs.

Helping Hands uses funding from three main sources: donations from individuals/organizations; a grant we receive from the Illinois Department of Human Services; and volunteer hours (meals provided every night).

The City of Springfield invests in the WWC too. They allocate a percentage of the Community Development Block Grant funds (a grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development department) to cover 35% of staffing costs. They also provide the facility and all related expenses (utilities, maintenance, etc.).

Why can’t we just keep the WWC open year-round as is?

Reason number one is that we cannot afford it.

But, even if we were handed the money, it would be a terrible idea because the current shelter model does not help house people. It keeps them safe during freezing weather. But when you take the freezing weather out of the equation, you’re enabling people more than you’re empowering people.

Put simply, a year-round WWC would be worse than doing nothing. And doing nothing, as we know, is a pretty rotten idea.

The WWC is a “meal and mat” operation designed to keep people safe during dangerously cold weather. Because of staffing, facility, and funding limitations – and because for most of its existence it “floated” between a few organizations – the WWC can’t do more than its designed purpose.

A “meal and mat” operation keeps people safe during frigid weather; when the danger of the cold is gone, though, this kind of shelter quickly turns into expensive, unsustainable chaos because it has lost its purpose. For those who do not have respect for rules, there is no impetus to follow them in a summer shelter the way there is when it’s below freezing. Therefore, people wouldn’t necessarily be any safer inside than they are outside.

Most importantly, a year-round WWC approach offers no mechanism to provide housing resources, which should be the focus of emergency shelter. In a summertime WWC people come in, they get stuck, and they stay homeless because there is no organized effort to give them another option. There’s no ability to triage (including homelessness diversion), and you can’t separate those who are ready and willing for help from those who are inappropriately using emergency shelter.

We can do better than that.

What do our clients need?

When we talk about homelessness in Springfield, we’re often asked if there are more people experiencing homelessness than in past years. The answer is yes. The real question, though, isn’t amount of people as much as it is what people need.

Over the past 20 years, mental health services in the State of Illinois have been decimated. As a result, police officers, EMTs, emergency rooms, and homeless shelters are absorbing a growing population of people who have serious mental health conditions and cannot get the care they need.

Access to mental health care is only one part of the issue; a provider shortage, compounded by a labyrinth of health insurance hoops to jump through, means that even if people try to get care they often are not eligible or they can’t navigate the system.

The stigma of mental illness remains and people who are not dangerous – just desperately need help – end up isolated, rejected, feared, and homeless. And then sometimes incarcerated. So now they not only have health issues, they also have a felony on their record. Throw in substance use disorder and the road back to health, housing, and independence can suddenly seem impossible.

Emergency shelters today must be able to help people address complex needs; mental health care and substance use disorder are at the top of the list. Entwined are issues around access to housing, employment, ACEs/PTSD, loneliness, and more.

We haven’t even begun to talk about the growing population of people who are elderly and homeless.

So while shelter can’t possibly do it alone, we must have facilities and partnerships designed to give clients housing, health care, and support services in a coordinated fashion. We also need to be able to divert people from shelter to housing, when appropriate, to avoid them getting stuck in shelter. It requires compassion, strategy, and coordination.

A “meal and mat” alone just isn’t enough.

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