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Homeless In Bloomington, Part 3

McLean County offers a variety of services to help the homeless find medical care, recovery services, jobs and housing. But the county's two main shelters cannot accommodate everyone. Certain restrictions apply as to who can stay at the shelters, and sometimes both facilities are full.

A new shelter is getting started in downtown Bloomington. It aims to become a one-stop center serving the most difficult cases. The Abundant Life In Christ Church offers food, shelter, showers, clothing, help finding jobs -- and spiritual sustenance. 

Charles Ahrens grew up in a trailer on Bloomington's west side. He said he often encountered men  in his neighborhood who were vagrants, ex-offenders or alcoholics. He knew then what his vocation would be.

"I became born again in 1998 and was looking for an opportunity to serve Jesus. Growing up in in trailer park, I was around a lot of poorer people, and I always had a desire to help people in that condition, though I had never been homeless myself," Ahrens said.

After attending ministry school in Dallas, Ahrens served as a chaplain with the Salvation Army in Bloomington, then worked for several years with the homeless population in San Francisco.

He returned to McLean County in 2014. Within a few months he had established a church and social center on Lee Street and Emerson Streets. Since last December, his Abundant Life in Christ Church has occupied a three-story  building on Market Street in downtown Bloomington that was once an opera house, an advertising agency, and most recently a comedy club.

"We've probably had 300 people come through the doors, a lot of homeless people and people getting out of jail,"Ahrens said.

There are currently seven men living on the second floor of the building in apartments Abundant Life Church has been able to renovate and furnish.

Ahrens said the church hopes to fill a gap in current homeless services by taking people who might otherwise be barred from staying in the city's main homeless shelters because of criminal records or alcohol or drug abuse.

His outreach to the homeless includes a heavy dose of religion. The shelter's current residents are in what he calls its "ministry program." There is a Bible study at 10 a.m. every weekday and services on Sunday mornings as well as a weekly prayer meeting.

The homeless don't have to participate in the Bible and worship services to receive help, Ahrens said. "We just try to get people off the streets and give them the help they need ... We have coffee and pastry. It's a good way to meet people, welcome people in, get people in off the streets."

The church also provides washers and dryers, and facilities for people to come in off the street and shower. "We have a clothes pantry here. They can get new clothes if they need to."

Through donations from Kentucky Fried Chicken, other restaurants and groceries, the church is also able to offer meals to walk-ins.

The center currently exists on private donations. The full-time residents are expected to pay a $100 weekly "contribution" to subsidize their meals, room and board, personal items and Internet service. 

Ahrens said a big part of the program is trying to find work for the residents, so they can meet their weekly payment and begin saving for permanent housing.

"We do fundraisers too," he added. "Right now we're pretty self-supporting but we can always use help."

Church members hope to continue renovating the second floor of the building to add more space for transitional housing.

Ahrens said he plans eventually to renovate the third floor into a long-term recovery program "for people with addictions and life-controlling habits."

Ahrens said when he worked in San Francisco there might be 6,000-9,000 homeless people living on the streets at any given time. McLean County homeless advocates estimate the homeless population here is less than 250.

They said most are able to find beds at one of the shelters, although the shelters are frequently operating at or over capacity. Social workers estimate there may be 35-40 people who live on the streets. 

Bloomington removed many homeless people from a longstanding "tent city" in west Bloomington last year because they were staying on private property at night. For that reason, Ahrens said, many homeless people now congregate closer to the downtown shopping area. "I see a potential problem in that," he added.

Mental illness and alcohol or drug use remain the largest factors afflicting the chronically homeless, Ahrens said. "Sometimes it's addiction because of mental illness and other times it's mental illness because of the addiction. Those two go hand in hand."

That is why encouraging spiritual transformation, he said, is a key component of his outreach to the homeless. People in a "lifestyle of homelessness" often need more than a quick fix,  he  added.

"I've seen people get in a place for a couple of months and then they wind up back on the street because they didn't know how to manage their lives. That's why we mentor people , partner with people, come alongside them and help them get the resources they need. We get them in here into Bible study and recovery programs, help them get the food and clothing they need, and hopefully get them on to other places."

Ahrens said Abundant Life in Christ Church is currently seeking donations of furniture and appliances, such as washers and dryers, as well as men's clothing.