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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Deadly Cold Looms, Emergency Shelter Space Limited

AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Jim Houston struggles to cross snow covered streets is in below zero temperatures Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Springfield, Ill. A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a "polar vortex" descended into much of the US and plunged temperatures to record lows.

As the region braces for an arctic blast this weekend, there aren't many places for people experiencing homelessness to go.

Sheltering people during life-threatening weather events already is a feat, said PATH Crisis Center Executive Director Karen Zangerle. But the pandemic is making it harder.

Zangerle said most emergency shelters are operating at half capacity to allow social distancing, adding some have said they will not take new people at all. That includes the Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter that recently had a COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, Home Sweet Home Ministries does intakes once a day, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday. Zangerle said the shelter is limited and prioritizes women and children.

PATH Crisis Center has used the Red Roof Inn for shelter overflow. But Zangerle said money for that program dried up.

“I have no money left to put people in hotels,” she said. “If you look at not only this weekend, but the whole month of February, we’re up for some really cold weather. It’s going to mean there’s more people on the streets and at this time, we don’t even have blankets or sleeping bags to offer.”

Zangerle said PATH already has paid more than $38,000 for hotel charges in an effort to keep people from freezing to death. She said the City of Bloomington kicked in some money at the start of the year. PATH Crisis Center also received $18,000 through an Emergency Food and Shelter Grant from the United Way and FEMA.

With drained reserves and without more money coming in, Zangerle said the efforts aren’t sustainable.

“With the lack of available emergency shelter beds, we have nothing else to do with them,” she said. “We’re right now in the process of notifying all of them that they have got to look within their own lives to see what resources they have, because otherwise they’re going to be on the streets.”

Last week, Zangerle said 27 people stayed in hotel rooms instead of on the street. This week, it’s 13. She said some have found family or friends to take them in as frigid weather approaches this weekend. Others decided to leave the area. PATH Crisis Center helps those who leave with money for bus tickets, she said.

Others might not have options.

"That's always been one of my greatest fears; that a homeless person would freeze on the streets because we, in this wealthy community, didn't have the money to put them in a hotel,” said Zangerle.

Extreme weather is a problem for people experiencing homelessness every year. But with reduced shelter capacity—and additional grant dollars unlikely to come until spring—the rest of the winter season will be particularly troublesome, Zangerle said.

She said cash donations would go a long way, as would contributions of old sleeping bags, blankets, mittens and hats.

Updated 3:39 p.m. on Feb. 5: The Salvation Army of Bloomington is contributing money to cover 10 hotel nights for next week only, Zangerle said.

The Salvation Army's Warming Center will not accept any new people. It will only be available to those residing in the shelter. Others who utilize the Salvation Army's services but do not reside in the shelter may be able to stay in the lobby. Assistant Director Austin Howald said all others should contact PATH to see if a hotel room is available.

The McLean County Emergency Management Agency has a list of available warming shelters on its Facebook page. Connect Transit will have a bus parked outside of the McLean County Health Department from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m for people to stop in and warm up.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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