PEORIA — Keri Kraemer says her escape from homelessness is on track.

Kraemer, who is taking classes to become a medical coder, attributed her progress to encouragement and services from the staff of a Peoria social service agency that specializes in moving clients as quickly as possible from its 24-hour shelter to permanent housing.

“They helped me get focused and have hope,” the 35-year-old Oak Lawn native said this month during an interview at Dream Center Peoria. “I’m feeling a lot better.”

Kraemer pays $85 a month to rent an apartment inside the not-for-profit’s seven-story building at 714 Hamilton Blvd. in Downtown Peoria after spending about a year in shelters in Peoria and Bloomington.

“I felt like it gives me a little breathing room,” said Kraemer, who is single and shares her two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.

Dream Center’s immersive approach to preparing shelter clients for long-term housing impressed Helping Hands of Springfield, according to the local organization's executive director, Erica Smith.

Called Housing First and promoted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the approach helped to shape Helping Hands’ plans for its proposed Center for Health and Housing at 521 S. 11th St. in Springfield.

The not-for-profit organization that Smith runs wants to improve services for the at least 285 people who are living in shelters and on the streets of the state capital.

A total of at least 400 people are living in shelters and on the streets in Peoria, the rest of Peoria County and the nearby counties of Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton, according to the Heart of Illinois United Way.

Helping Hands wants to do what Dream Center did two years ago — convert its shelter program from one with lots of rules for entry and only allowing clients to spend the night to a “low-barrier” concept.

Unlike Helping Hands’ current traditional shelter, the proposed low-barrier shelter would accept most clients, except sex offenders, even if they are intoxicated. Clients would be offered expanded case-management services, mental health services and other forms of health care throughout the day.

Concerns about proposal

It’s unclear whether Helping Hands, which currently serves homeless clients at 1023 E. Washington St., will be able to convince the Springfield City Council to grant a zoning change to allow for $3 million in renovations at the two-story building on 11th Street so it can house the proposed center.

The building originally was built in the late 1990s for office space that was rented by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 1999 to 2013.

In Peoria, the Dream Center site didn’t have to deal with zoning changes as it operated a traditional shelter and then changed its shelter to a 24-hour facility.

The Dream Center, inside a building constructed in the 1950s and later used by the YMCA and YWCA, is undergoing a $1.7 million expansion that includes increasing the number of shelter beds from 95 to 125. Ground was symbolically broken on that interior work this last week.

The Springfield City Council is expected to vote on the proposed zoning change Sept. 17 after the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission conducts a public hearing and takes an advisory vote Aug. 21.

Many of the 250 people who showed up at a town hall meeting on the proposed site July 24 either spoke out or clapped to show their opposition to the site.

Angela Harris, president of the Pioneer Park Neighborhood Association, said neighbors are united in their opposition to the site. Other parts of Springfield should do more to share the burden of serving the homeless, she said.

Opponents also say 11th Street, which runs through several working-class neighborhoods, already is home to a cluster of social-service agencies.

More opportunities

Long-term housing wouldn’t be offered at the 11th Street site, but the center would coordinate an expansion in what is known as “permanent supported housing” throughout the community, Smith said.

Case management and other supportive services would be provided to formerly homeless people in these settings, she said.

Moving to a 24-hour shelter with fewer barriers to entry is more work for shelter workers, but this model creates more opportunities to address the needs of clients, said Shirley Carrol, the Dream Center’s senior case manager for housing.

“When you have a one-stop-shopping type of concept ... if they are in one place continuously, I can help you,” Carrol said. “If you have a place, and I know that in the morning that when you wake up I’m going to meet with you again, then we get something started. You cut the time that that person has remained in homelessness.”

Carrol and Kristy Schofield, Dream Center’s director of homeless and housing, said the low-barrier shelter has helped more people get off the street and into permanent housing.

Peoria’s public library and other places in Downtown Peoria used to be where homeless people would sleep outside, they said. That situation is more infrequent since the center’s 24-hour services began, they said.

A similar change might be seen outside Springfield’s Lincoln Library if the new Helping Hands center is allowed to open, Smith said.

Carrol said she hopes neighborhood residents support Helping Hands’ proposal, which she said is, in some ways, more ambitious than what the Dream Center offers because even more on-site services would be available for clients.

Kraemer, the Dream Center client, moved into her Dream Center apartment in October 2018. She said the not-for-profit’s staff helped her set up care from a doctor to treat her Type 2 diabetes and depression. That care and connection to other services in Peoria helped her stabilize her life, she said.

“It doesn’t seem so bleak as it seemed before,” she said.

Contact Dean Olsen at dean.olsen@sj-r.com, (217) 788-1543 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.