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Bloomington explores grant for possible shelter expansion and green energy improvements

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.

In its latest efforts to go green, the City of Bloomington is looking to include Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) shelter in Bloomington.

The city plans to apply for a federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to work on the East Street Basin, a long-term project projected to cost millions.

The grant funding, if approved, could also enable the shelter to provide additional housing at a time where a nearby tent encampment has a waiting list.

As part of the application for this Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grant, Bloomington wants to partner with Home Sweet Home to put around $1 million toward shelter improvements. That includes solar panels, potential shelter expansion and the development of a non-congregate shelter for those currently encamped across the city.

While the shelter may seem like an unlikely partner for an environmental grant, CEO Matt Burgess said it makes a lot of sense.

“It's about water control and environmental improvements from that standpoint,” Burgess said, referencing the basin project. “But it's also about improvement of air quality for those impacted communities.”

And he said the shelter’s “energy consumption is very significant,” which directly impacts the neighborhood's air quality. There’s also the cost of that energy consumption, which falls back on HSHM.

Burgess said solar would have a “tremendous positive impact” on the shelter’s work.

“We'd be able to devote more of our budget back into programs rather than facilities overhead,” he said.

Before solar can be installed, Burgess said the shelter needs a new roof. Home Sweet Home’s other building, which houses The Junction community center and a food co-op, got a new roof recently and is solar-ready. With the roof repair included, Burgess said it will cost around $250,000.

That leaves $750,000 of flexible funds that can be used to expand the shelter or develop an indoor structure that would provide individual dwellings for the people encamped who largely cannot live in congregate spaces, like a shelter.

Burgess said the money can also be split to fund both. He added that it’s all “depending on what needs we say really need to use [the funds] for that will make a bigger difference.”

There are hurdles to overcome before implementing a non-congregate shelter space, though. Burgess said the primary issue right now is finding a location.

A growing tent encampment is situated near the shelter and in an overflow parking lot of Eastview Christian Church Community Center. However, Burgess said zoning regulations prohibit anything more permanent from being set up there. The lot is also size-constrained.

HSHM, Eastview and the city have all been looking into solutions for months. Burgess said he’d be looking to do something like a Pallet Shelter village, or the Avivo Village in Minneapolis, which puts tiny houses inside an existing structure and offers wraparound services for residents. (The Pallet Shelters are placed outdoors).

Regardless of which structure is determined best fit, Burgess said it’s important to get “our unsheltered neighbors” inside.

“They can seek warmth when it's cold outside, and they can seek cooling when it's blazing hot and humid outside,” He said. “And (we) really do more about fixing that gap that exists in our community where we have people who have no recourse but to shelter in tents.”

If the $750,000 winds up all going toward a shelter expansion, Burgess has told WGLT previously there are other funding opportunities for non-congregate shelters. He said private donors are looking to invest, and he is constantly looking for applicable grants.

Burgess added that the city has been a partner in these efforts for some time, and this latest push for a grant is another sign of the city’s support.

“I feel the strong backing of the city as we look at what this solution will wind up looking like,” he said.

Meetings have already started between Home Sweet Home and incoming City Manager Jeff Jurgens.

Any funds are pending a city council vote. Members will hear the proposal at their Monday night meeting, and if approved, the city can go forward with HSHM as the official partner for its federal grant application.

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