PEORIA — At any given moment, there are just over 300 people who are considered homeless in the Peoria area, whether they are staying in a shelter or living on the streets.
Of the 311 people, which includes men, women and children, fewer than 40 are regularly living on the streets, for a multitude of reasons that could change on a daily basis, says Kate Green, who heads the Home for All Continuum of Care, the federally mandated umbrella agency that oversees all not-for-profits that offer services to the homeless in and around Peoria.
But given some of the attention on the city of Peoria this year after a community garden on the West Bluff was razed and areas were cleared in which homeless Peorians gathered in the Warehouse District and near the Murray Baker Bridge, many might be surprised to know that the city of Peoria doesn’t really have a direct role in administering services for the homeless.
Rather, the city is a non-voting member of the Continuum of Care board under the theory that not-for-profits, for the most part, hold the expertise in those services.
Peoria’s city-government role
Peoria, the largest municipality within the continuum’s four-county region, does find money and helps with grants.
“The city actually has been a really great partner on the strategy behind the continuum,” Green said, noting City Hall was behind the effort to create some full-time staff for the continuum. “Here locally, there was this realization that there is more power to the CoC if there are full-time people who are dedicated to the work.”
The Continuum of Care is basically a planning agency and provides a mechanism to help all interested parties around people who are experiencing homelessness, Green said.
“It allows for a systematic approach,” Green said of the group, which meets monthly. The CoC covers Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties.
It refers people to agencies that work directly with the homeless, including Phoenix Community Development Services, the Salvation Army Heartland Division, the Dream Center and others. It’s governed by a board, including members from human services and health care organizations in the region.
What the city does, other than advise and offer input from a policy level, is find money and bring it back to the area.
Peoria itself gets about $134,000 in federal funds to help the homeless. The CoC brought in about $1.8 million in donations and grants from a four-county area, and they are the ones who primarily drive how services are meted out.
“The city acts as a pass-through for the funds. We rely on the subject matter experts to actually provide the daily services for individuals,” said Kathryn Murphy, who is the grants manager at City Hall.
Peoria applies for money through the federal government or is given money from the feds or Springfield and then “passes” that money through to the not-for-profits.
Green said this is typical of many cities Peoria’s size. It’s not common for smaller communities to have a full-time staffer who focuses on homeless issues. Rather, the idea is to let the community groups do their day-to-day work, with the city helping in the background.
As to the controversies over the community garden and the homeless encampments, neither were city-led, Green and city officials have said.
With regards to the community garden, the property owner had asked for it to be demolished, said Ross Black, the head of the city’s community development department.
“The city did not issue a work order or enter into any other contract to clear the lot. We facilitated the arrangement between the contractor and the owner. The city did not pay for the work,” he said in an email.
And as for the moving of people camped out under the bridge, that was the work of the Illinois Department of Transportation.
In both cases, Green said, the CoC tried to find places for people to live. And the city continues to work on state and federal grants, the lifeblood of efforts here.
Some successes in Peoria
Black pointed to an effort the city was involved with in conjunction with the CoC that’s viewed as a success. After discussion by the City Council, portable toilets were put out a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic when shuttered businesses throughout Downtown made it more difficult for homeless residents to attend to one of life’s most basic necessities.
On a similarly basic level, city employees are asked to keep their collective eyes open. If a code inspector is out and sees something, they call it in. If the police or firefighters see something, they contact the city, which contacts the proper agencies.
The process has worked well, Murphy said, in building trust.
“We have established that process so that individuals are getting those services from trained professionals. We want to use the trained mental health experts to get the best help for those individuals,” she said.
’They keep us pretty well informed’
Sara Runyon, the chief operating officer of Phoenix Community Development Services, agreed. She says she’s in contact with city officials often.
“They keep us pretty well informed when a building is going to be condemned or rendered uninhabitable,” she said. “It’s really beneficial. Your outreach workers, we can’t go into every vacant building in the city.”
She talked of third-shift police officers who have called her about a person in an old vacant building.
“They say there is this guy in a building and he’s agreeable to having some resources. We’ll go and we’ll talk to him. We can’t do that with the police.”
Should Peoria do more?
Chris Schaffner of the Jolt Foundation deals primarily with people who are suffering from drug addiction, but many of them are homeless. To him, the answer isn’t just providing services but also providing a stable and safe place to live. That’s one thing the city could do, he says, that wouldn’t necessarily cost taxpayers.
“The city should use its position to push developers to allocate a percentage of affordable housing units on any new housing developments. They should also implement rent control,” he said. “Tim Riggenbach, in the 3rd District, has worked to get affordable housing in his area and has several projects coming online soon. But we also cannot concentrate poverty into segregated areas. We must integrate affordable options into mixed-income neighborhoods.”
Riggenbach said affordable housing isn’t a sexy political topic, but one that is vital to the health of a community. He generally thinks the way the city goes about things with the Continuum of Care is working, but he also notes that the City Council must stay involved.
“Let’s face it, we have a bully pulpit that Kate Green doesn’t. When we say something, we get a different reaction than she would get,” he said.