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Searching For The 'Invisible' During Bloomington-Normal's Homeless Headcount

Man searches for homeless people
Ashley Binkowski
Point In Time count participant Mark Jontry looks for those experiencing homelessness outside a commercial property south of downtown Bloomington on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

At 10 p.m. on a snowy Thursday in late January, Kimberly Maddox and her volunteer team bundled up and wandered the streets of Bloomington-Normal, looking for something that’s often invisible: those experiencing homelessness.

Maddox was one of 33 volunteers taking part in the one-night homeless headcount, led by the Central Illinois Continuum of Care. Each team was assigned a list of known hot spots for those experiencing homelessness, like benches, parking garages, parks, and cemeteries. Their job was to count and survey each person they found.

“These are our families. These are the uncles of our families,” said Maddox. “It’s a chronic, habitual situation for so many. And they’re unrecognized. They’re the silent community members. So I’m here because I want them to know I care.”

volunteers check in
Credit Ashley Binkowski / WGLT
The 2020 survey began at around 10 p.m., as volunteers checked in at PATH’s offices in downtown Bloomington.

Maddox works in the Regional Office of Education. Her job involves serving the hundreds of students and families across four counties, including McLean, who are identified as homeless.

It’s not just a professional duty. Maddox was homeless herself at age 15, while living in Hawaii. She did a lot of couch-hopping.

Now that she's in a position to help others, Maddox said she lives every day to make a difference.

“I have the passion, the empathy, everything that’s needed to reach families and people who other people won’t take a step toward. I’m not afraid. It’s like, if I don’t step forward to help someone, who is?” Maddox said.

The Jan. 23 count was Maddox's first night out in the field for the annual tally of unsheltered people living in Bloomington-Normal.

“Our communities are not often the way that we think they are. It can often be quite literally a tale of two cities,” said Erik Zdansky, program manager for homeless services at the Bloomington-based PATH Crisis Center. He organized the so-called Point In Time (PIT) count in his role as Central Illinois Continuum of Care lead.

“The Bloomington-Normal area is perceived to have a lot of wealth and investment and with certain companies, these two universities,” Zdansky said. “But at the same time, you see a stark difference, even in the housed population, between the east side of Bloomington and the west side of Bloomington.”

Zdansky said it’s easy for poverty and homelessness to appear invisible, with many isolated at The Salvation Army or Home Sweet Home Ministries shelters.

“These are real human beings that are sleeping in parking garages, in the dead of night, who are cold, and they’re isolated from the rest of us who get to sleep in a bed,” he said.

Jontry with flashlight
Credit Ashley Binkowski / WGLT
Jontry's team's last stop was under the bridges where Main and Center street and some railroad tracks cross over Sugar Creek, near Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

The data gathered during the PIT count is important, Zdansky said, so we all know the scope of homelessness in Bloomington-Normal and develop and assess different strategies to lessen it. The data is also sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It lets Congress know the scope of the problem, and they get to decide how much money is then allocated to help us reduce homelessness,” Zdansky said.

The 2020 survey began at around 10 p.m., as volunteers checked in at PATH’s offices in downtown Bloomington. Zdansky walked them through every question on the survey: Do you have a physical disability? Are you fleeing domestic violence? Are you a veteran?

For many of the first-time volunteers, it was unclear how a person experiencing homelessness would react to a small group of strangers approaching them with a survey.

“Ultimately, if we can get a count that reflects an accurate representation, then we can get additional resources in the community to serve this population,” said Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools who was teamed up with Maddox. “But I’m interested in seeing just how willing someone is to share their story.”

When she homeless as a teen, Maddox said she remembers people talking to her about different services that were available. She was never surveyed like this.

“It’s just knowing that you matter,” Maddox said. “It’s like ‘every vote counts.’ Every number here matters, and a lot of times our homeless community is somewhat invisible.”

Jontry and Maddox's team hit several stops in a little over an hour: Franklin Park in Bloomington, a 24-hour laundromat, and the industrial buildings just south of downtown. The last stop was under the bridges where Main and Center street and some railroad tracks cross over Sugar Creek, near Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

They hiked up and down the creek bed, pointing flashlights under the bridges. They didn’t find anyone.

Kim walks
Credit Ashley Binkowski / WGLT
Volunteer Kimberly Maddox walks on Center Street over Sugar Creek in Normal during the Point In Time (PIT) count.

Zdansky said the weather might have had something to do with it. The cold, snowy, and rainy night was pretty authentic for January.

“As it gets really cold, people become more innovative in finding ways to not be seen and be out of the wind and the snow,” he said. “And they’re also more likely to double up with whatever friends or family that they have, that they might not be able to go to on a 50-degree night, but it’s really cold so, ‘Can you let me stay just this one night?’”

While Maddox and Jontry didn't find any unsheltered homeless, other teams did.

There were 27 people who were unsheltered in McLean County Jan. 23. That's one more than last year. Around half said it was their first time experiencing homelessness. 

Organizers will also add in the number of people who were sheltered that night, in transitional housing, safe havens, or emergency shelters. In 2019, both groups added up to 199 people experiencing homelessness. (The 2020 final count is not yet available.) 

Zdansky acknowledged homelessness is a big, complex problem, and you can’t fight it if you don’t know what you’re up against. 

“Yes, I always remember the reality of what’s going on and it’s very serious. But at the same time, I have a lot of hope from the work that we do, and stuff like the Point In Time (count), so that we can know what’s going on. And that hope allows me to keep going and pushing.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.