The area’s homeless are hidden, unless you know where to look.
Some stay overnight in the lobby of Peoria’s police station, an official overnight warming center. Christine Kahl, director of South Side Office of Concern, knows of tent encampments along both sides of the Illinois River, sheds behind businesses off War Memorial Drive, a wooded area off High Street.
“Many homeless people are very resilient,” Kahl says. “We do have a problem, it’s just invisible to some extent.”
In their own way, more than 50 area volunteers, none of them homeless, will do their part Friday night to bring homelessness out of the shadows. They’ll spend the night in appliance-sized cardboard boxes in the grassy area around the Sonar Tide sculpture outside the Peoria Civic Center. The event, “Gimme Shelter,” is part fundraiser for the South Side Office of Concern, part opportunity to educate the public about issues and community solutions for homelessness, according to Kahl.
Organizers chose the date and the location for maximum exposure. Kahl hopes people going to Civic Center activities will be intrigued by the sight of people settling into boxes on a winter night — intrigued enough to donate money or attend one or all of six 20-minute workshops on homelessness.
As of Thursday, “box dwellers,” including Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Jeff Griffin, firefighters, police officers, and radio personalities, had raised almost $40,000 in donations from sponsors.
Kahl points out a wintry overnight experience draws on common stereotypes. But homelessness throughout Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties is defined in broader terms, though none are precise or definitive.
The annual homeless census conducted by social service groups in a four-county area is a point-in-time count of people in emergency shelters and anyone they can find sleeping in cars, sheds or on the street. The 2017 point-in-time count is Jan. 24.
School districts, mandated by the federal government to track and provide services for homeless students, also include people in unstable living arrangements known as couch-surfing or families doubled-up, sometimes tripled-up, living with relatives or friends.
“It all comes down to a lack of affordable housing in our community,” Kahl says. “Affordability issues are the number one cause of homelessness in our community. Mental illness or drug abuse may contribute to homelessness, but they’re not the cause.”
And winter months aren’t the most crucial periods for homelessness. Local housing providers aren’t sure why, but they see more people at emergency or domestic violence shelters in August, September and October.
Kristy Schofield, director of the Dream Center’s emergency shelter, suspects relatives are more willing to take in homeless family members in during the winter months. The moratorium on utility shut-offs during the winter months may also play a role in keeping families in housing they couldn’t afford otherwise, she says.
The availability of affordable housing for homeless military veterans is one bright spot in efforts to end homelessness, according to Kevin Nowlan, director of Heart of Illinois Continuum of Care, a coalition of area providers of housing and homeless services. “We have pretty much ended homelessness among vets,” he says. The 2016 homeless census counted 378 people in emergency shelters or on the street. Only 12 were veterans.
A panel of local officials representing law enforcement, health care, and housing providers is trying to get a handle on what homelessness costs the community.
“It’s tricky question,” says Katie Johnston, an analyst with Peoria’s police department who will present one of the educational workshops during the Gimme Shelter fundraiser.
Authorities don’t have numbers or estimates but they know many homeless people tend to be in and out of jail or hospital emergency rooms, both of which are costlier services.
Homelessness is not a crime, say police department spokeswoman Officer Amy Dotson, who also is participating in Gimme Shelter. But it can lead to criminal charges for offenses such as panhandling or trespassing.
“We can’t arrest someone for being homeless,” Dotson says. “It becomes a question of if the property owner allows them to be where they are.”
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at padamspam.