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Women to Women Giving Circle tackles topic of unhoused families at Spring Forum

Bloomington’s homeless population has gotten increasing attention from the public as the tent encampment near Home Sweet Home Ministries shelter grows, increasing its visibility.

Audrey Cail with Home Sweet Home told a crowd at the Women to Women Giving Circle Spring Forum on Tuesday night that there are around 30 tents now. She told WGLT none of the people staying there are children, but that’s not been the case for the shelter, which supported 84 children in 2023.

There are unhoused families with children across McLean County — and neighboring Livingston County — in need of support, said the five panelists from area schools and social service agencies.

Each of the panelists explained they are doing the best with what they have, but it’s not enough.

The schools

Kayla Arnolts is the regional homeless liaison for Regional Office of Education (ROE) #17. She spoke about what ROE does to support students and their parents across the four counties of McLean, DeWitt, Livingston and Logan.

She said as of February, the schools reported 600 children as homeless, and many of them are Black, despite the region’s predominantly white population.

However, she said seven of 29 school districts hadn’t classified any children as homeless at all, which she doesn’t think is accurate.

“I don't believe that there are zero students who qualify as homeless in any of our school districts,” Arnolts said.

She pointed to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which broadens the traditional definition of homelessness. Any student who does not have stable housing 100% of the time, or who doesn’t have access to essential utilities including water and electricity, is considered homeless.

“It can only benefit our school districts to identify homeless youth,” Arnolts added.

She said since July, ROE #17 helped 12 single mothers, one single father and two two-parent families with rent and utility assistance. And, she said there’s another $80,000 in funds to assist families who need help with rent, utilities, hotel stays and other basic needs.

Bloomington schools work hand in hand with Arnolts to not only classify students as homeless under McKinney-Vento but get funds to families, said Julie Burke, who’s a social worker at Irving Elementary School and the homeless liaison specialist for District 87.

At Irving, Burke said she’s identified students who are residents of Home Sweet Home shelter and others who live in public housing. There are also families with students doubling up, meaning they share households.

In her dual role, Burke said she’s not only helping families but seeing the effects housing insecurity has on kids at Irving.

There’s one fourth-grader who Burke said was bullied by her peers. Burke said she could see “a sadness in her and low self-esteem.”

“Mom has been telling her, ‘Well, we might have to move to another town, we might have to have a shelter, I don't know where we're going,’” Burke said.

Then she was dealing with kids at school pointing out how her clothes are stained or too short.

“So these are the things that these kids are hearing and they're trying to process all this and then still sit there and pay attention in class,” she said.

Behind the scenes, Burke was working with the fourth-grader's family. She became more involved when the mother of six was evicted last year. Burke got them a temporary hotel shelter before they all moved in with family, but they could only take two trash bags of belongings with them. Then suddenly, there were six kids and three adults in a two-bedroom townhome.

“They were sleeping on air mattresses,” Burke said she had noticed during a home visit. “So right away I did a referral for mattresses and got those delivered.”

Burke said she uses all her resources to help families like this one. That means reaching out to Arnolts to see what ROE can do, and her local partners, like the business that supplied beds to the kids, waiving costs other than a $30 delivery charge. She also keeps care packages on hand for families, with items like toilet paper and dish soap — many of which are donated.

General assistance in McLean County

Outside of the schools, people like Home Sweet Home’s Audrey Cail and Janet Hood of Mid Central Community Action nonprofit in Bloomington step in.

Home Sweet Home offers shelter space to qualifying residents, three free meals daily for anyone who stops in, a food pantry and a community center, The Junction, Cail said. She added that they have a wealth of programs generally geared toward assisting people experiencing homelessness in McLean County.

Then, there’s Hood, who is the housing stability navigator for McLean County. Her role — housed in Mid Central — is to help people find permanent housing, but she says they have to be “financially stable.”

“That does not mean you have to have a job, it means you have to have a stable income,” she explained.

She’s also not going to do the work for people. Her clients must find apartments themselves, and she will help them by guiding them through the application process.

Hood started her work in July, and since then, she said she’s seen many mothers with children come through. She added that her client list grows every Friday when she does intake.

“Since January… I’ve had 102 clients,” she said. “That’s not counting what’s coming up this Friday.”

Of those clients, she said there were 12 families she housed. Supply has gotten better recently, she added, since a new apartment complex opened in the area, which has already housed five families alone.

Livingston County

Caroline McLeese works with Salvation Army in Pontiac
Melissa Ellin
The Salvation Army's Caroline McLeese said there are no shelters in Livingston County.

Caroline McLeese who works with Salvation Army in Pontiac, said the housing situation is even more severe in Livingston County. Like McLean County, there’s a shortage of units, but unlike here, there’s no shelters or programs that support emergency housing.

McLeese said many people experiencing housing insecurity in Pontiac stay at Fiesta Motel.

“It's a breeding ground for drugs, crime and bedbugs,” she said. “It's not safe for people who are trying to recover from drug and alcohol addiction, and it's not safe for children.”

And yet, she said children stay there.

“The school bus comes, picks them up and drops them off every single day.”

For one woman named Elizabeth who came into Salvation Army with her two kids, McLeese said she was able to find an AirBnB-style rental for $500 weekly in town.

“Salvation Army has been footing that bill,” she explained. “And it is putting a huge strain on our budget. And to be quite honest, we don't actually have the money for this. We're just trying to figure it out.”

That’s been going on since Jan. 18, which is also when the mom, Elizabeth, joined the waitlist for affordable housing.

“She is number five for a two-bedroom,” McLeese said of Elizabeth. “She has been number five since January. There has been no change.”

This week, McLeese said Elizabeth told her about another homeless mother she’s taken under her wing and invited into the temporary housing unit.

“That might cause some issues,” McLeese admitted. “But in my head, I was like, ‘Thank God, I don't have to find a place for her to live to.’”

Between March 2023 and March 2024, McLeese said Salvation Army in Pontiac has housed 149 people. Of these, 35 were children.

She added that she’s made it her personal mission to get a shelter in Livingston County, but there’s a lot of NIMBY, or Not In My Backyard, attitude from the community. There’s also the issue of funding.


Throughout the panel, that became a frequent theme: finances.

Panelists said one of the best ways for the average citizen to offer support to homeless families is through financial support of their programs. The schools and agencies have the knowledge and skills to deliver support, but they need money to deliver.

Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, the grant-giving nonprofit that runs the Women to Women Giving Circle, is fundraising itself for future grant cycles. The next one launches in September.

As for the at-large housing issue in McLean County, Town of Normal Council member Kathleen Lorenz attended the forum and shared that she thinks it will take “a heavy lift and a lot of political will from city, and town, and probably county officials,” to make change to zoning laws, for example.

Lorenz said she’s looking forward to the McLean County Regional Planning Commission releasing a report that will have a “point-by-point plan,” including continued funding for Housing Stability Navigator Janet Hood. She added that it should be out soon.

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