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Home Sweet Home keeps its eye on nearby encampment during cold

The Home Sweet Home Ministries' shelter has remained at or near capacity as it prepares for additional emergency housing needs next winter.
Emily Bollinger
The Home Sweet Home Ministries' shelter has remained at or near capacity as it prepares for additional emergency housing needs next winter.

Frigid temperatures and snow are pelting central Illinois, leaving people living on the streets vulnerable. In Bloomington, an encampment in a parking lot near Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) homeless shelter is doing its best to stay warm.

HSHM CEO Matt Burgess said there aren't many options for creating heat outdoors or in tents, and one of them is propane tanks. He added that these aren't necessarily safe, but there is little alternative.

"Which is more dangerous, freezing to death, or using a propane heater to heat a tent?" he said. "I'm not sure how to answer that question."

Just last week a propane tank campers were using had a faulty valve. Burgess said someone immediately notified the shelter, though, and the fire department responded.

Burgess added that the shelter is brainstorming alternatives, but answers to the problem aren't apparent.

"Until we have a safe space for people to seek indoors, that's gonna be a problem that we're going to continue to have to be uncomfortable with," he said.

Meanwhile, HSHM has started providing other resources to the encampment to facilitate more structure. People tenting were given a waste receptacle and — as of this week — two portable toilets.

In addition to providing sanitary measures, the shelter is also having residents of the encampment go through a registration process. HSH is collecting names and personal information from people in tents, and marking them to help identify who is staying there.

Burgess said the goal was to have everyone registered by Friday.

The shelter is also asking them to sign agreements for dwelling in the parking lot.

"They're basically a set of guidelines on what it means to camp in that space," Burgess explained. "Basic things, like maintain a clean tent area so that we don't have trash strewn everywhere, don't be disruptive."

He added that these quasi-contracts also include details about how the shelter intends to handle conflict.

"If there are issues that need to be addressed by the police, the police will be called, if there are things that require us to get involved, we'll have a kind of a progressive response format, where we'll warn people about a behavior a couple of times, and then, if they persist, we will let them know that they are no longer able to camp on that parking lot," Burgess said.

So far, Burgess said people seem pleased with the changes.

"They are very grateful for the engagement that they're getting from us, they are grateful for the reassurances that we're going to do what we can to make it a safer, more hygienic environment for them to be in," he said.

Home Sweet Home is also continuing conversations with the City of Bloomington to make the encampment even more solutions for people encamped.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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