Springfield’s Planning and Zoning Commission will soon consider the location of a new Center for Health and Housing. The center would provide emergency shelter, health care and other services for those experiencing homelessness. But some homeowners near the proposed site say they’re opposed because they’ve been excluded in the early phases of the project.
Tracie Shaw has lived in Springfield for over 50 years and is a member of her neighborhood association. “It wasn’t called Pioneer Park at the time that we moved here, but yeah, I’ve been here that long.”
On a recent weeknight, Shaw and some neighbors gathered outside the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois for National Night Out. Popcorn and root beer floats met those who wanted to stop by and chat.
Members of the Pioneer Park Neighborhood Association were also collecting signatures on a petition to stop the zoning change for a former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services building on the corner of 11th Street and Edwards, where the planned $3 million Center for Health and Housing would go.
“When people don’t know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and they have not been engaged to help with solving the problem, you can’t expect them just to go along,” Shaw said.
Shaw and other residents say they are not against helping those experiencing homelessness. Still, Shaw points out, the East Side has about 14 other service providers and the community wishes for some of that to be spread out to other parts of the city.
“And so we are at a place now where are not going to go along, and we are raising our voices,” she said.
Bob Palmer, policy director with Housing Action Illinois, said he’s seen similar reactions in other communities.
“There might be pressure to locate programs that serve people who are homeless and provide affordable housing away from where other people are living," he said.
But, he said, that’s often not a good option because it means services are far from public transportation, job opportunities and other resources.
He said the key to addressing concerns is public education and open community discussion.
That open community discussion started with a town hall meeting three weeks ago. But some residents say that was too late into the planning process.
Erica Smith, executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield, said she acknowledges the approach was not ideal. “I think we do have to apologize and say the conversation did not happen in the way we hoped it would.”
Smith is spearheading the project with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's department of psychiatry, Memorial Health System and other partners in the city.
“Before you go to people, you have to have a proposal in place that has some sort of feasibility. Those elements didn’t line up until recently. As soon as they lined up, we brought this to the public,” she said.
Smith said the plan would solve or at least help minimize some of the issues residents are already facing: from seeing loitering in their backyards to panhandling. She says the center would have multiple services under one roof, including 24/7 security and outreach for mental health care, subtance use services, and primary care. All would also be available to the general public.
Smith said there are backers who are willing to fund the building's purchase and renovations, but now all that’s needed is changing the building’s zoning permit from commercial to office zoning . And for that — the Springfield City Council has the final say.
Still, members of the Pioneer Park Neighborhood Association say they have asked Smith to look for a different location. “There are numerous vacant and/or available structures that will accommodate their concept,” a statement from the association read.
Smith said the current building would require the least amount of renovations, and therefore, would be much more affordable.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said he’s heard concerns about the current location being close to a middle school and a pre-school. He said he wants all parties involved to keep discussing the issue and reach an agreement.
“I want them to go through the process. It’s not just Jim Langfelder’s opinion. It’s everybody’s opinion," he said.
Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said he’s still talking with residents and service providers about the plan and has yet to take a position.
But homeowners like Tracie Shaw say the conversation should not exclude the mayor or city-wide officials leading up to the zoning commission’s recommendation.
“It is an issue that has to be addressed by the whole city in order to come up with a solution. And the homeless are not just on the east side of Springfield, they are throughout the community.”
Shaw said residents on the East Side want those involved with the project to hear them out.
“I would just urge them to talk to the people in the community and get their input. And maybe they will get a chance to change some people’s minds — you never know.”
The center is on the agenda for the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on August 21st.
Helping Hands of Springfield will be holding lunch meetings every Tuesday in August to answer questions about the center.