'Homeless doesn't equal faceless'

Nick Stroman

Homelessness is a problem everywhere, even in East Peoria — thanks to Peoria.

East Peoria police Chief Ed Papis said his department has dealt with less than a handful of homeless individuals on his side of the river.

“Usually they are staying at the mission or Salvation Army (in Peoria) and they walk over here,” Papis said, adding, “The problem is them wandering over the bridge.”

A few police reports from East Peoria in January listed the arrested individuals’ address as “homeless.”

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz said although individuals who happen to be homeless have been charged with crimes, being homeless is not a crime itself.

Umholtz said no one can actually be charged with being homeless, but it can be harder to collect the fine associated with the crime.

“If a homeless person is charged with a crime, we try to be fair and arrive at a just result. What else can we do?” he said.

While Papis said being homeless is not a crime, “being homeless and committing a crime is a crime.”

Those homeless people arrested in East Peoria were charged with theft of service, vagrancy, theft and outstanding warrants.

“If it’s a misdemeanor, we will give them a court date and transport them back over to the mission,” Papis said.

Papis said in instances he recalls, the homeless people who were arrested have broken the law, or police received a complaint phone call.

“They are trespassing or they’re loitering and soliciting monies, and that’s all against the law,” he said.

Umholtz said he remembers, years ago, a man who used to routinely commit crimes every winter to land him in the warm confines of the county jail.

“At one point, he had calendars printed and used the jail address as his address to send them to,” Umholtz said.

Meg Newell, associate executive director of development for South Side Mission, said some people might not think a homeless problem exists in East Peoria, but they would be wrong.

“If you don’t think there’s a homeless problem in your community, then you live in a town without homes,” Newell said. “You probably know people who are homeless, and don’t even realize it.”

A homeless count conducted in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties last month by a group of not-for-profit and government agencies found a total of 424 homeless people in the three counties. Of that number, 26 (18 adults and eight children) were found in Tazewell County.

The count included searches under bridges, along the river, in cars and places not meant for human habitat.

Emergency shelters and transitional housing units also provided numbers for the night of the count.

Peoria YWCA director Pam Schubach, who took part in the homeless count, said they rarely, if ever, find homeless persons on the streets of East Peoria.

“If they are homeless and from East Peoria, they will come across the river to Peoria or head to Pekin. That’s where the shelters are,” Schubach said recently.

Newell said the mission is fortunate for an area the size of Central Illinois to have the New Promise Center in Peoria, a shelter for area homeless women and women with children.

New Promise cares for women through a structured program of progression, which can last up to a year.

Each client has a case manager who assists her through three phases of residential care — making a change, living the change and securing the change. Three meals per day are served, along with a prayer service and life skills and culinary classes.

There are also rules to abide by at New Promise, such as a strict curfew and anti-drug policy.

“The greatest majority of our ladies have jobs and their kids go to school. We have women from East Peoria, Peoria and some from out of state,” she said.

Newell said the difference between the homeless of Peoria and East Peoria lies in lack of available resources.

“There isn’t a shelter in East Peoria, but in nearby communities like Peoria and Pekin, you have places for people to turn in those times of need,” she said.

The mission opened a Mission Mart in Fondulac Plaza last year for those looking for clothing, toys, furniture, housewares and more at a reasonable cost.

Newell said the mission’s staff realizes there is still a great need for its services by the number of phone calls and walk-ins in the last several months.

“We have beds available now, but for awhile, there was a waiting list because of increased need,” Newell said, adding they have more than 50 women at New Promise now, but can handle up to 65.

The Salvation Army’s Heartland Division — which covers Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties — handled 4,678 cases of families last year needing holiday assistance, such as food and children’s gifts.

That’s an increase of more than 1,600 cases from the year before, and 143 of those families came from East Peoria.

The Army’s Safety Net overnight shelter for men also houses an average of 65 people per night. Its 40-bed emergency family shelter has also been handling families who need longer stays than the average 30 to 90 days, due to the economy.

Newell said there are more than 1,000 different reasons people are homeless.

“Parents could’ve put them out. Some are in domestic violence situations and don’t have a place to turn, and a majority are people who lost their job and just can’t get a new one,” Newell said.

Newell said recently, the women at New Promise have been victims of the poor economy.

“We’ve seen a rash of women that were in rental houses and just got behind on payments or utilities and were evicted. These are not irresponsible people and they were trying to do the right thing,” Newell said. “They just weren’t given a break.”

Newell said many of the people who study the social phenomenons of our world have concluded anyone can be just one crisis away from being homeless.

“No matter the hardship, we give them a soft place to fall,” Newell said.

Newell said recently, staff heard a commotion coming from one of the rooms, and when they went to investigate, they found one of the women in hysterics.

She had just found out her 10-year-old son died of cerebral palsy.

“So, on top of everything else, she now has to think about burying her baby over the weekend. That just goes to show you that homeless doesn’t equal faceless,” Newell said.

Newell added when people come through on tours of the facility, they are often shocked at the people who stay there.

“We’ve had people come right out and ask, ‘Where are the poor people?’ I don’t think homeless has ‘the look’ most people think it does anymore,” Newell said.