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Homeless in Central Illinois

Advocates are looking at affordable housing to help solve the homelessness issue

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - In Downtown Bloomington, business owners have expressed concern over loitering outside their stores. Advocates are working on solutions to help hundreds right here in our community.

If you ask what it's like to be homeless in Bloomington-Normal, Andre Moreno would tell you,  "It's just rough out here,"

It's a problem plaguing cities around the country, but in the Twin Cities, homelessness has been an issue for more than a 100 years.

"If you walk around this town at midnight, you'll see people all over the place," Moreno explains. "Most of us are really good people. We're just down on our luck."

Moreno has spent the last four months living without a roof over his head.

"I've slept in some goofy places," he says. "Sleeping on the concrete ain't good for you"

Moreno is one of nearly 250 people in Bloomington-Normal dealing with homelessness at any one time. He explains he's a carpenter by trade and hasn't been able to find work because of an injury, leaving him with no way to pay for a place to live.

"You won't go hungry here, because you can eat almost anywhere," says Moreno. "The hard part is finding a place to crash. They only keep you so long at the Sali, Salvation Army."

The Salvation Army's Safe Harbor Shelter is the only shelter in town that allows people dealing with addiction or substance abuse to stay. There's a constant waiting list

Director Gaby Bontea explains that the organization wants to help everyone that it can. People can stay up to eight weeks to help them get up on their feet.

But Moreno says there aren't enough beds to help everyone.

"Once you get your confirmation card and stuff to get in, it could still take  you a month to get in there, because a bed has got to open up."

And Safe Harbor is one of only two emergency shelters in the Twin Cities.

Home Sweet Home Ministries also operates a shelter, which is almost always running at capacity. There's no limit to how long someone can stay.

"As long as people are working toward their goals, they're welcome to stay here," explains Executive Director Mary Ann Pullins.

With the shelters full, many people have to make other sleeping arrangements, like tents, cars, or the sidewalks. Mareno says, despite negative stereotypes, most of the people dealing with homelessness are not dangerous.

"All of my friends that I hung out with, almost none of us steal or lie. Yes, we ask for money, panhandling, I won't lie. You gotta survive somehow." he says.

Lori Kimbrough, Director of PATH Homeless Services says, "Usually folks who are out on our streets ... have a mental health concern or a substance abuse issue. Generally, they're not going to be harmful to anyone except for unfortunately themselves."

"A lot of us drink, like he was saying, stressed out, life on the streets," Moreno admits. "If I got work, I probably wouldn't drink."

Downtown business owners have expressed concerns about people asking for money outside of their shops, and driving customers away. Kimbrough says business owners can always call her department and someone will come out to try and help.

"We try to get them a little at time to take a few services here and there," she says.

But advocates agree the ultimate solution is creating more affordable housing.

"It would take an individual working two full time jobs at minimum wage to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment in Bloomington-Normal," explains Pullins.

Bontea adds, at Safe Harbor, "We have people that are progressing and doing well, but we keep extending their stay because they're on a waiting list for housing."

The road to more low-income, supportive housing requires collaboration from advocates, residents and community leaders.

"We know that if we house the person first, and then work on the reasons why they were experiencing homelessness, there's a longer ability for them to stay housed," says Kimbrough. "There's a cost to the justice system and of course the shelter system...Wouldn't you rather spend money here than spend money there?

According to community survey's over the last few years, the public cost to support someone who must live on the street  can be up to $17,000, with visits to hospitals and jails. The cost to establish permanent affordable housing is estimated to be either equal or lower the the current price tag.

PATH has brought up the idea of a tiny house community. Pullins says affordable housing also has to have support systems in place, to make it more sustainable.

"We will never be able to have no one experiencing homelessness," explained Kimbrough. "If we can say no one is experiencing homelessness for longer than 30 days, then I think that's the light at the end of our tunnel. We've done what we can do."

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