Tiny Houses An Answer for Homeless, Businesses?

Willis Kern and Mike McCurdy


City of Bloomington officials are working on one aspect of a possible solution to the homeless problem downtown.

Alderman Karen Schmidt, whose ward includes the business district -- which has seen an increase in homeless individuals, says so-called "tiny houses" may help the situation.

Tiny houses are small, moveable homes generally under 500 square feet that underscore a lifestyle of simple living.

Schmidt said the homes could be located together near downtown.

"We want to be very thoughtful and try to find a place in our community that doesn't feel isolated in any way. These are our residents and we want them to feel welcome, and we want it on a bus line," said Schmidt.

Schmidt said there seems to be momentum for bringing the tiny house concept into the homeless solution mix.

"I think it has a lot of traction and it has a lot of people at the table from the city, PATH and the shelters," she added.

Schmidt said zoning issues have to be resolved and she says the city's community development staff is working on that. The homeless problem downtown was spotlighted last week during the GLT News series "Homeless in Bloomington."

'Benchgate' Raises Issues About Attitudes Toward Homeless People

"Homeless in Bloomington Part 1"


The recent case of vandalism to a bench frequented by homeless people in downtown Bloomington has reopened a community conversation about gaps in services for the chronically homeless.

Some downtown business owners have stepped up their complaints, while some homeless people say they are unfairly singled out by police. Bloomington police, business owners, and advocates for the homeless (met this week) to discuss what some see as a simmering problem.

Some have taken to calling the incident “Benchgate.”

A person in a hooded jacket was caught on surveillance video in downtown Bloomington smearing a greasy black substance from a bucket on a bench frequented by homeless people. He person apparently knew about the surveillance cameras near Main and Mulberry Streets. He -- or she –- took care to shield the face from view, and struck at 6:10 a.m. on a Saturday -- when few pedestrians are around.

“I think this speaks to the level of unwelcome that people who are homeless feel in our town," said the Rev. Kelley Becker, assistant pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Bloomington, who has a ministry to the homeless (and serves as NIOTBN Faith and Outreach chairman).

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner is concerned police have been unable to find who was responsible. He says the issue is not so much damage to a city bench as it is the kind of signal the incident sends about attitudes toward the homeless.

“This whole situation was very disturbing. As a mayor, a citizen, as a human being, it’s sad to me," Renner said.

The bench incident laid bare a side of the Bloomington community often kept hidden. It revealed a gap in services for the most difficult of homeless cases. It also underscored the widening concern among some business owners about the homeless population, as well as a growing frustration among police – and the street people themselves --  who say they feel targeted.

Todd Ledbetter is a homeless man who could often be found on that bench. His clothing was ruined when sat on the grease.

“I didn’t really have any other clothes so I had to wear my undergarments, my Nike-wear under my Levis," Ledbetter told WGLT.  "I  had some old shirts and stuff. Some good Samaritan came by and asked me if I needed a pair of pants. They brought me a pair of Levis, and fortunately they fit.”

“I think it’s discrimination against Todd just because of who he is,” said Mike Waters, who lives in an apartment building downtown and says he has known Ledbetter for years.  Waters says he placed a warning sign on the bench after not only Ledbetter, but a female shopper unwittingly sat in the greasy substance spread over it.

“They go after Todd. I don’t see them picking on other people in the public," Waters added. "Other people have tried to chase him out of here. They won’t let him in the businesses because he’s been here so long.”

Ledbetter represents the kind of homeless person most difficult to get back on track. He grew up in Carlock, IL and worked in an automobile repair shop. Ledbetter said he descended into alcoholism after two divorces and losing custody of his children. 

He served time for armed robbery in Champaign and has been arrested in McLean County three times on misdemeanor charges including trespassing at a Jimmy Johns and stealing a two dollar and fifty cent can of wine from a Thornton’s gas station.

 “When I first got out of prison, I went from down from 30 beers to 20 beers to 10 beers because I was trying to get out from under what was hindering me from being that one hundred percent Todd that I used to be,” Ledbetter said.

By his own admission, Ledbetter still drinks--and doesn’t intend to stop. For that reason, he’s unable to stay at the city’s two main homeless shelters. He’s also unwelcome at most downtown businesses, even to use the bathroom.

“I’ve had several cops say to me, people are just sick of seeing you and you need to leave," he said. 

Lori Kimbrough is outreach director of PATH, an agency that tries to match the homeless with services. She said complaints from business owners have nearly doubled in recent months, even though most of the homeless who congregate downtown are not violating any laws.

“Generally the folks are just loitering, they are out and about. Sometimes they ask people for money, panhandling, but generally they are just out and about hanging out," Kimbrough said.

Becker of First Christian Church said options for staying elsewhere have become even more limited. Last year, the city chased the homeless from a so-called “Tent City” where they used to congregate west of downtown because they were staying on private property.

“There are still a lot of people living near the downtown area, sleeping in parking garages or underneath bridges and maybe sleeping in a shelter in evening and then having no place to go during the day, not even to go to the restroom or even get a drink of water. And I think we need to think seriously about what our reaction to this is going to be,”Becker said.

Bryce Pierson is an assistant McLean County public defender who has handled dozens of cases involving the homeless.  “They find themselves in a situation where they are bound to downtown because the service providers are downtown," Pierson said.

"So you have individuals who don’t have any means for transportation, they don’t have cars, they don’t have means for bus tokens so they locate as close to the providers and court as they can and that tends to be the downtown area.”

Private agencies offer several services for the homeless. The Salvation Army on Washington Street operates the Safe Harbor shelter which offers overnight beds and meals. The Salvation Army also oversees a food bank and provides a day lounge for those not currently staying at the shelter.

The Mission at Home Sweet Home Ministries on Oakland Street provides temporary shelter for adults and families with children.

Tom Fulop of Safe Harbor says both shelters must restrict who can stay there.  

“Some folks don’t want to stay here because we have too many rules. One of the rules is you can’t drink in the shelter. We have put people out because they bring alcohol or drugs onto the property and that is not acceptable, that is not appropriate," Fulop said.

The Mission at Home Sweet Home Ministries doesn't allow people to use the sleeping areas during the day, although there are men’s and women’s day lounges. Executive director Mary Ann Pullin said because children stay there, the shelter won’t take in anyone recently convicted of a violent crime.

“We’re not able to serve everyone. People need to be drug and alcohol free. That’s to try and insure a safe environment for everyone, including the children," Pullin said.

Advocates said the hardest cases are homeless people with mental illness. Of the people who stayed at Safe Harbor in the past fiscal year, 21 percent had alcohol problems and an equal percentage had physical disabilities. But by far, the largest group -- 43 percent -- suffered from mental illness.

The city and county have been working for years on better services for the mentally ill. The county established a mental health court a few years ago. Just last week, it announced it will participate in a new federal program to divert mentally ill residents from the criminal justice system.

Bloomington's Mayor Renner said the city needs to find additional “humane ways” of moving forward.

“We did earmark a quarter penny of our sales tax for mental health issues. We do not want our jail to be the number one mental health institution, and currently it is,” Renner said.

For the mentally ill homeless, life can be a revolving door of arrests. Take the case of one 57- year -old Bloomington man. According to court records, police arrested him for minor misdemeanors seven times in a three-month period. His offenses included failing to leave a Quick Stop, a Kroger supermarket, and a La-Z-Boy furniture store when asked.

PATH’s Lori Kimbrough said  the man is well-known to homeless advocates.

“For him, he feels everyone is out to get him and that no one understands his concerns and issues which is totally understandable when he’s been barred from here, here and here," Kimbrough said.

Police noted on several of the arrest reports that this individual suffers from mental illness. But with nowhere else to take him, the man ended up most of the time in jail.

 “This isn’t a police problem, it’ a bigger problem than us," said Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner.

Heffner said panhandling, for instance, is not a crime in Bloomington, but if business owners call the police about a homeless person, officers have to respond.

“People pay the city for the right to have a business and if they think someone is in there disrupting their business by coming in and disturbing customers or stealing, they have a right to have a police response and that is our duty," Heffner said.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said detention might be a good thing some who have drug abuse problems or suffer from alcoholism, like Todd Ledbetter, the man who used to sit on the defaced bench.

“We can get him some of the help he needs while he's here and that is help that he might not seek on his own," Sandage said.

But there are several drawbacks. Pierson, the assistant public defender, said homeless people repeatedly arrested for minor misdemeanors usually get increasingly higher bonds with each subsequent offense. That makes it harder for them to get out of jail.

Pierson said many of his homeless clients then feel pressure to plead guilty just to get released for time served.

“They don’t look long-term. So short-term it’s a good option to enter the conviction and be released. They don’t look at the collateral consequences that go along with having the conviction on their record," Pierson said.

PATH’s Kimbrough says criminal convictions make it more difficult for homeless people who are seeking to straighten out their lives to obtain employment or housing.

“You serve your time and come out, and if you didn’t have a place to live before you went in, you certainly don’t have one when you come out. Now you’ve added to your record jail time, and it’s harder to find that permanent housing option," Kimbrough said.

Each of the McLean County shelters offers only short-term housing. For instance, Safe Harbor allows residents to remain for eight weeks, although some can stay longer under special circumstances.

Pullin of Home Sweet Home Ministries says there is an even larger problem: a general lack of affordable housing in McLean County.

 “Often times people regard the homeless as people who are unmotivated, lazy, and that's simply not true. Most of the adults who stay here are employed and many are employed at two jobs or more," Pullin said.

"Here in Bloomington-Normal, if you wanted to afford a basic two bedroom apartment, you'd have to work two fulltime jobs at the  minimum wage if order to afford that," Pullin added.  "If you have children and child care expenses on top of that, it's impossible."

One approach other cities have tried is called the “Tiny House” project. As the name suggests, these are small homes built to fit several on a single lot. A consortium of local churches recently renovated a trailer into a Tiny House.

That house currently sits on a parking lot in Heyworth. That’s because Bloomington officials need to figure out where the home can go under the city’s current zoning rules, and whether it can be hooked up to city water and sewer services.

Pullin of Home Sweet Home says affordable housing must also be coupled with supportive services.

“To insure they are taking their medications as prescribed and will be balanced and won’t be out of control," Pullin said. "That is the biggest issue, essentially people with mental illness need support, not just a place to live, but they need ongoing support to make sure they have their needs met." 

Pullin said she believes most people who find themselves homeless can be helped, but there will always be a small number who refuse services.

Todd Ledbetter, the man whose favorite bench was defaced, still frequents the same downtown corner even though the city has not replaced the bench. Now, he sits or lays down on the street, and at night sleeps in alleys or under bridges.

Passersby who know him as a familiar presence often greet him by name and stop to check on his condition.

“People come here and say, ‘Hey Todd, how you doing?’ People who got jobs at a pizza place bring me pizza at midnight to eat when I’ve had nothing to eat all day.”

Ledbetter remains there, with the hope that perhaps one day he can pull his life together, and that someone maybe will offer him day work, so he can scrape together the money to sleep some nights in one of the city’s discount motels.  

Advocate for 'Hidden' Homeless Receives Peace Prize

Judith Valente

WGLT Radio

The recipient of this year's Grabill-Homan Peace Prize is the Reverend Kelley Becker, associate pastor of First Christian Church in Bloomington. Becker is being recognized for her work with the homeless and several community groups.

Joseph L. Grabill, right, Becker, and Gerlof D.  Homan

Joseph L. Grabill, right, Becker, and Gerlof D.  Homan

The annual award is named for former Illinois State University Professors Joseph L. Grabill and Gerlof D.  Homan, who established ISU's peace and conflict resolution studies program.

Becker said that her friendship with many homeless people began by accident, when she was working as a youth director at First Presbyterian Church, which had some extra sandwiches to give away.

"My son, Andrew,  and I went to all different places in town looking for people who were hungry and needed a lunch," Becker recalled. "In the process of that, we found people who were living outside in tents that I had heard about,  but had never been face to face with, had never heard their stories or learned their names. And I knew at the end of the week I couldn't pretend I didn't know they were there any longer."

That experience led Becker to arrange for a cadre of volunteers, including herself, to cook and deliver meals four days a week to the people she calls the "hidden homeless."

Becker said many homeless people are forced to sleep outdoors because the community's two shelters, Safe Harbor and Home Sweet Home Ministries, are often full.  During the night, some set up makeshift tents on commercial property, disappearing again in the daylight. 

"Of course the community is uncomfortablewith seeing people who clearly live outside and so we have a tendency to push people who live outside into the shadows," she said. "We have done that pretty well in Bloomington-Normal."

Businesses, she added, are often reluctant to allow the homeless to remain inside their establishments during the day. "So they get a lot of move along, move along,  and gradually we shift themout, away for us. The unfortunate part of that is that any time we push people into the shadows, we make them feel like the other. And my ministry is a lot about saying nobody is the other."

Becker said much of her pastoral work involves "being present," but she also has officiated at a funeral for a homeless man she got to know, and on occasion has brought communion to people she met living on the streets. "And they will call me when a crisis happens," she said. "I'm very aware of the fact that I don't know what would happen to me if I lost my job, and my family and friends gave up on me, and I lost my home," Becker said.

One bright spot , Becker said, is the local "Tiny House" effortin which small, inexpensive structures, often sponsored by churches, can provide shelter for individuals currently living outdoors.

"We're currently discussing if there a way for us to secure some land and get some zoning worked out so we can have some tiny homes positioned in a part of our community that would have bus access and enable people who are currently homeless to truly be part of the community," Becker said.

One such "tiny house" has already been built at a cost of $6,000. It was placed for a time in the First Christian Christian parking and later the parking lot at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington.

Plans are under way to construct an additional house. "A lot of this needs to come from the faith community, to say you know what, everybody needs a roof over their head and what can we do to help?" Becker said. "Certainly if our faith communities each sponsored a person who is chronically homeless, we would not haveanyone living outside." 

Becker is also faith andoutreach chair for Not In Our Town, a group that seeks to foster relationships between people of different races and faiths. Becker helped arrange open house events at two of Bloomington's mosques and its Hindu Temple. A similar event is planned for the Mose Montefiore synagogue. "'Our goal is to make Bloomington Normal a place where people of any faith or no faith feel welcome." Becker said.

"I really feel the key to peace and living together in a welcoming, inclusive community is understanding one another and hearing the stories of our neighbors. When I was a youth minister one of the things I did with kids was talk about the difference between tolerating other people and embracing other people," she added.

Becker also helps oversee the annual West Side Back to School Block Party, a mult-church event that provides school supplies for local children. She has also worked on LGBT issues and an improving police-community relations. Becker will receive her award at a reception Monday evening at the ISU Alumni Center. The award includes a donation to an established scholarship or program at Illinois State chosen by the recipient.


NIOTBN's Becker To Receive Peace Prize

What is a community activist? In the case of the Rev. Kelley Becker, it is one who attempts both to lead her spiritual community in support of the human community at large and also to serve that larger community and the too-often forgotten and neglected communities within it. 

Becker is this year's recipient of the Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize. She will be recognized at a Monday reception.

As associate minister with Bloomington First Christian Church Disciples of Christ, the city’s oldest congregation, Becker assists in imparting a message of compassion and inclusivity and overseeing an outreach program that has included FCC’s now 17-year-old, multi-church Westside Block Party and construction and promotion of the Tiny House, a modular mini-home that could prove a key solution in transitioning people who currently are homeless into a socially and economically sustainable life.

The Tiny House exemplifies Becker’s commitment to the disenfranchised of the Twin Cities. She has ministered to local people who are homeless on a personal level as well as through the church, and helped communicate with local police authorities and highlight the plight of homeless persons following last spring’s eviction of individuals from an outdoor encampment on Bloomington’s Market Street.

Becker also is attuned to the challenges facing the Twin Cities Latino community and issues confronting immigrants caught up in political controversy. She has traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, witnessed federal deportation “show trials” in the Southwest, and through photos, stories, and sermons has helped illuminate complex issues of immigration, border security, and human rights.

Further, at a time when events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago underline concerns about police-community relations particularly along racial lines, Becker continues to communicate regularly with law enforcement officials, to affect greater understanding of community needs and police perceptions. In the pulpit and in the community, she has worked to uphold respect for and inclusivity of the LGBT community – she helped organize First Christian’s new One and All progressive service, which provides a worship opportunities for those who may not have felt welcome or accepted at other area churches.

Her commitment extends to supporting solutions to mental health issues that can exacerbate the challenges of poverty, substance abuse, crime, and East Side/West Side relations, as a board member with Bloomington’s non-profit INtegRIty Counseling. Last year, Becker agreed to chair Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal’s fledgling Faith and Outreach Subcommittee, which is devoted to fostering interfaith understanding and aiding area churches in efforts to address bigotry and attaining social justice for all Twin Citians. She played a key role with local Jewish and Islamic leaders in a December interfaith solidarity event in downtown Bloomington aimed at countering anti-Islamic sentiments.

NIOTBN's Becker Named Peace Prize Recipient

Kelley Becker, associate minister with Bloomington First Christian Church and chairman of the Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal Faith and Outreach Subcommittee, is 2016 recipient of the Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize.

Becker will honored at an April 24 awards reception.

The Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize recognizes individual achievements in peacemaking, leadership, community service, and activism. The award recipient will be presented with a plaque at a reception in the spring of 2016, and a gift of $250 will be made to an established program or scholarship at ISU selected by the recipient.

The prize is named for Joseph L. Grabill and Gerlof D. Homan, Illinois State University emeritus professors of history, who helped establish the interdisciplinary Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies Program.

Becker helps oversee an outreach program that has included FCC’s now 17-year-old, multi-church Westside Block Party and construction and promotion of the Tiny House, a modular mini-home that could prove a key solution in transitioning people who currently are homeless into a socially and economically sustainable life. She has reached out to local people who are homeless on a personal level as well as through the church, and helped communicate with local police authorities and highlight the plight of homeless persons following last spring’s eviction of individuals from an outdoor encampment on Bloomington’s Market Street.

Becker has traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, witnessed federal deportation “show trials” in the Southwest, and through photos, stories, and sermons helped illuminate complex issues of immigration, border security, and human rights. At a time when events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago underline concerns about police-community relations particularly along racial lines, Becker continues to communicate regularly with law enforcement officials, to affect greater understanding of community needs and police perceptions.

In the pulpit and in the community, she has worked for inclusivity of the LGBT community – she helped organize First Christian’s new One and All progressive service, which provides a worship opportunity for those who may not have felt welcome or accepted at other area churches.

Becker's Faith and Outreach Subcommittee is devoted to fostering interfaith understanding and aiding area churches in efforts to address bigotry and attain social justice for all Twin Citians. She played a key role with local Jewish and Islamic leaders in a December interfaith community solidarity event at the Old Courthouse in downtown Bloomington aimed at countering anti-Islamic sentiments.

Alli: Homeless Emergency Fund Addresses Local Students, Families

Each year, over 100 students and their families have been identified as homeless in District 87 alone. Our statistics speak from themselves:

2012: 123 homeless students

2013: 106 homeless students

2014: 112 homeless students

2015: 78 homeless students have already been identified

My name is Alli Gray and I have been teaching PE and Health for six years.  This is my first year teaching at Bloomington Junior High School.  

My career is beyond amazing because of the students I come in contact with every day.  I can’t explain how incredible these kids are. Despite many of the hardships that my students and their families face on a daily basis, they continue to preservere. They somehow find a way to see the rainbow in midst of the storm.  I see my students face struggles head on that NO ONE should EVER have to deal with, especially at their young age. 

This year, I was talking to some of my students about hygiene and expressed that everyone needs to look out for one another. I mentioned that some students may not be able to shower every day because they may be homeless so we all need to be accepting of one another and try to not pass judgment because many of us don’t know the lives that our friends lead outside of school. 

At the end of this class, I had a student come up to me and say “Mrs. Gray, I didn’t know you knew I was homeless (which I didn’t), but thanks for everything you said.”  Tears filled my eyes and my heart sunk looking into this innocent student’s face. All I could do was hug this student and let this student know that I would always be there to help and that things would get better. I can’t imagine the struggle my student is facing, but I immediately knew in my heart that I would do whatever I could to help my students in any way that I can for as long as I can.

And that is what brings me here, to creating this account. 

Because of the Bloomington School District Homeless Assistance Fund, staff members are able to provide support, supplies, transportation and care (medical included) for each of these students and their families. 

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless. 

 This includes: 

·     Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason
·     Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations
·     Living in emergency or transitional shelters
·     Awaiting foster care placement
·     Living in a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings
·     Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings
·     Migratory children living in the above circumstances
·     Unaccompanied youth living in the above circumstances

Check out the link below for a short video giving insight into the struggles of our homeless children, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KO3ec5qRub4

Please consider a donation to the Bloomington School District Homeless Emergency Fund, at https://www.gofundme.com/homelessbjhs. I am so overwhelmed by the generosity and love the community has shown and cannot believe my first goal for the BJHS homeless assistance fund has been surpassed!! This fund would not be possible without your incredible support. THANK YOU!!!

Efforts to raise money for the homeless students and families within Bloomington District 87 will be ongoing as support will continuously be provided to those in need. Please continue to share this page, spread awareness, and donate if possible! All my best! 

Kelley: Chronic Homelessness and Tiny Homes

Kelley Becker

NIOTBN Faith and Outreach Committee

On Wednesday, October 7, 2015, I had the privilege of talking with a group of Eureka College freshmen about the challenges that people who are chronically homeless face and some possible solutions. I was invited to speak by their instructor, Holly Rocke, who is a member of the church I serve, First Christian Church in Bloomington.

I shared with the students that I have built relationships with people in our community who live outside in tents year round. They endure harsh winter weather, heavy rains in the spring and excessive heat and mosquitoes in the summer. My work with people who are chronically homeless began because I learned where they were living and I and some friends began to share meals with them.

Over the years, we have continued to share meals and our lives. There are a group of people from the Bloomington-Normal community and beyond who take turn sharing meals and helping these friends in other ways. You see, there is not just one reason people become chronically homeless, so there isn’t just one way to help people who chronically homeless. Because I have gotten to know some of their stories personally, I have been able to work in the community for permanent solutions that I believe can work.

I have learned that our emergency shelters, Home Sweet Home and Safe Harbor, will never be able to help some people who are chronically homeless. There are some people that, due to their past, are unwelcome in our shelters. There are some people who, because of addiction, mental health or personality are unable to follow the rules the shelters must impose. It is these people that I have been working to help.

The Tiny Home Project was started in an effort to provide shelter, dignity, safety and a new start for people who are unable or unwilling to go to an emergency shelter. It is partnership between First Christian Church in Bloomington, The Matthew Project from Heyworth, the Lutheran Board of Church Extension and Illinois Wesleyan University School of Theatre Arts. We hope that through tiny homes we are able to provide housing FIRST so that people who are chronically homeless can change their lives forever.

Our first tiny home is almost finished. Our goals with this build were to 1) draw attention to chronic homelessness 2) give people who are chronically homeless an opportunity to see a tiny home and 3) to encourage community leadership to look at this solution.

At the Eureka College presentation, I showed the students pictures of the tiny house build and gave them the opportunity to ask questions. Many of the questions centered on how we would decide who is allowed to live in the homes or whom we would choose first. We hope to be able to build enough homes to put an end to living outside in our community. Of course, we would fill the homes in the beginning based on critical need. In other words, there are people whose health is seriously at risk by continuing to live outside. We should house them first.

It was hard for some of the students to wrap their minds around the idea of providing housing without strings attached. We teach our young people to grow up, get an education and make their way in the world. I talked with them about how difficult that is for some people and that many people in our country are teetering on the edge of homelessness all the time. We have to help each other. There is enough for everyone. Everyone should have a place to belong and a place to call home.

I believe we need to be a community that does not judge whether we believe a person deserves help, but instead commits to helping everyone have a safe place to live. Tiny homes may not be the solution for everyone, but it is a solution for some. We are in the process of working with City of Bloomington leadership, business leaders and social service organizations to find a place to put the tiny homes.

This project is an amazing example of how the faith community, business community, academic community and social service community can come together for solutions. We do not all agree and working together is sometimes difficult. However, together we are better. By working together we have the opportunity to build something that benefits the entire community.

Tiny House Project 'Springboard' for Transition of Homeless?

It was a different sort of luncheon and home tour recently at Bloomington’s First Christian Church. The luncheon was sloppy joes and three-bean salad, the home could fit roughly in perhaps two church parking spots, and the guests were a mix of city officials, church volunteers, representatives of west side non-profit groups, and guests who spent much of their days – and nights – on the streets.

Local contractor and volunteer mission builder Mike Robinson displays the Tiny House interior for representatives of non-profit organizations.

Local contractor and volunteer mission builder Mike Robinson displays the Tiny House interior for representatives of non-profit organizations.

Redeemer Lutheran Church Tiny House volunteer chats outside the prototype home.

Redeemer Lutheran Church Tiny House volunteer chats outside the prototype home.

Members of three area churches are currently putting the internal finishing touches to the Tiny House – a modular one-room frame home equipped with AC, heating, a toilet, and shower, designed to put a roof over one currently homeless head. The Tiny House Project – built on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus with private and city support – will go on tour with an eye toward finding a lot and hookups for permanent or transitional residency.

“This is a good thing you guys are doing,” one guest told Tiny House sponsors prior to the home tour.

The Tiny House will be on display for two weeks at a time at various Bloomington-Normal churches, as project coordinators consider options for occupancy. “We actually haven’t thought that far yet,” admitted Tiny House Co-Coordinator Julie Robinson, whose husband, local contractor Mike Robinson, helped build and is now finishing the interior of the structure.

Robinson sees the tiny house as “a viable option” for persons who currently live outside, particularly during periods of inclement weather. City of Bloomington Code Enforcement Grants Coordinator Jennifer Toney sees even longer-term benefits of economic housing for homeless persons: “Housing is probably one of the most important things for an individual when they’re looking for a quality of life.”

Toney subscribes to a “housing first” model, arguing that those not “struggling with where they’re going to put their head at night” can focus on employment, community services, and financial security. “It levels the playing field a little bit.”

PATH Homeless Services Supervisor Lori Kimbrough characterized the Twin Cities’ current homeless situation as “pretty severe,” with some 20-25 people on the streets or “other places not meant for human habitation” on any given night. That number did not drop this past winter as it traditionally has on a seasonal basis, “and we’re looking for some permanent solutions to that problem,” Kimbrough said.

“The folks say who stay out on the street have huge barriers to housing – basically affordability is the biggest issue,” she noted. “They have extremely no to low income, so that doesn’t afford them a living situation or a permanent housing option.

“If the housing choices for a person are in a tent or in a shelter, these people prefer to choose a tent. If we could give them the option of affordable housing, I would say they’d prefer that option.”

Low building costs and floorplan/facilities simplicity also offer relatively low home maintenance costs – another plus for prospective Tiny House tenants trying to regain their financial stability, Kimbrough suggested. Inaugural tiny house projects to date “have worked fairly well” in communities such as Eugene, Ore., Madison, Wis., and Huntsville, Ala., the PATH supervisor maintained.

The City of Bloomington currently administers  a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Local Continuum of Care Grant, which provides about $300,000 per year in homelessness prevention services. Toney and colleagues are investigating possible local lots for tiny houses, preferably along a municipal bus line to accommodate employment and considering public safety issues “for everyone,” she related.

Early talk of the Tiny House Project intrigued Joe Teague, a smaller properties broker and property consultant with Road Runner Real Estate and member of Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Bloomington. Teague concedes that the tiny house concept “breaks a few rules” and poses challenges in zoning and potential liability but notes “I’ve been known to bend or break a few as I go along in life.”

“It’s using great ideas, using different ideas, and using people’s imaginations to tackle a very tough problem and to provide services for folks who are in very tremendous need,” Teague said. “It also benefits our community as a whole. This is not just let’s put people in a shelter – let’s find them serves, let’s make it holistic. I don’t care if you live in a 10,000-square-foot mansion or a 2,500-square=foot nice house, or a cabin – sense of place is so critical. It’s a springboard.”


Tiny House Begins Twin Cities Journey

Stop by Bloomington First Christian Church (FCC) at 401 West Jefferson this week to view a new effort to offer people homeless Twin Citians “a place that’s safe and warm – a place for a new beginning.”

A prototype Tiny House – a joint project of First Christian, Illinois Wesleyan University, the Matthew Project Church Extension Fund, and Our Redeemer Lutheran Church of Bloomington – was transported last week from the Wesleyan campus to FCC -- the first of several anticipated rotating church stops. Local contractor and volunteer mission builder Mike Robinson of FCC will help finish the interior of the single-person dwelling, which will include an air conditioner/heater and a shower.


FCC Associate Minister Kelley Becker, a local homeless activist disturbed by the recent eviction of several individuals in a “tent city” off Market Street, concedes a wide variety of individual issues behind “chronic homelessness,” including addiction, joblessness, mental illness, and/or “past mistakes involving the judicial system, and ongoing tragedies.” She hopes the model Tiny House will not only show those currently homeless an option, but also spur community leaders to consider “more than the emergency shelter approach” to homelessness.

“I learned very early on in this ministry that I cannot fix all these problems, but I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them,” Becker recounts. “I’ve listened to their stories and their dreams and their regrets. The thing I’ve come to feel strongly about is that none of the problems around chronic homelessness can be fixed without homes. Housing must come first.

“A person who is homeless without an address has little hope of ever being offered a job. A person who is addicted to alcohol will struggle to stay sober if he or she returns from treatment to a tent. Living outside is hard, even when a person makes the choice to do so.”

A recent survey by Bloomington-based PATH found 16 people living on the city’s streets and another 220 in some type of shelter. Roughly 40 were considered “chronically” homeless, meaning they live somewhere not meant for habitation, a safe haven or shelter; have been homeless for at least a year or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years; and/or have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder or cognitive impairments.

Bloomington’s Tiny House Project is one of many sprouting across the U.S., and it could help address a costly as well as disturbing problem. The cost of providing an apartment and social work for Utah's “housing-first” clients has been estimated at about $11,000 per year, while the public cost for people living on the streets is pegged at around $17,000 annually because of hospital visits and jail costs.

Home Sweet Home Eyeing Homeless Solutions

Homeless issues and possible solutions will be the focus of Home Sweet Home’s next Forging A Better Way meeting, 6-7:30 p.m. Monday at 1st Baptist Church, 2502 E College Ave, Bloomington.

Home Sweet Home Ministries' Matt Burgess reports HSH's steering committee has reached consensus on the need to "restore a sense of dignity, worth, and personal capacity to our charitable systems."

"While we might each differ in our specific areas of interest, these uniting themes keep coming through loud and clear," Burgess said.

At the meeting, HSH will explore formation of "affinity groups" based on recent feedback. Broadly, those groups revolve around the following themes:

* Money/Income related interests (debt reduction/asset building, loan alternatives, fiscal fitness, employment opportunities, etc.)

* Health concerns (including both physical and mental health, as well as issues relating to substance abuse recovery)

* “Neighboring” concerns – how to be a good neighbor within the community

* Collaborative efforts – how to work together to maximize the impact of our attempts to help

Participation is by invitation.

Kelley: One Size Does Not Fit All Homeless

This winter, our community became very aware that not everyone has a safe, warm place to live. Cold temperatures and piles of snow reminded us daily that being outside is not ideal, even for short periods of time. There are some people in our community who live outside year round.

I want to encourage us, now that warmer temperatures are here, not to put the issues surrounding homelessness out of our minds and hearts completely. While living outside is not as dangerous now that the weather has moderated, it is certainly not ideal and can still be very dangerous.

We must work together for long-term solutions to the challenges that contribute to homelessness. It is important to remember that all people who are homeless are not the same, just as all people who live in homes are not the same. Because of this, we must treat each individual who is homeless as a human being with a story and a life and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. As we begin to look at the challenges around homelessness, let us come at them from a posture of love and care. Let us remember that solutions for one person may not be solutions for another person.

There are two shelters for people who are homeless in our community. Some of the people who are homeless are not allowed in either shelter due to their past mistakes. Some of the people who are homeless choose not to stay in a shelter for a variety of reasons. In other words, shelters do not work for everyone. It is time to consider other options. We must choose “housing first”. In order for a person to seek employment, get treatment for his/her mental health or addiction and begin to repair and have healthy relationships, that person must have a place to live.

As we seek solutions, I ask that you listen for the words “housing first”. When you hear them, consider supporting the ideas that are being explored.

People who are homeless are people, just like you and just like me. People who are homeless are our neighbors. Let us work to make all of our neighborhoods safe and welcoming to everyone…let us seek housing first.

Kelley Becker, associate minister, Bloomington First Christian Church

Campbell Grabill-Homan Peace Price Winner

Mary Campbell has been named this year's recipient of the Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize.

Campbell is a social work professor emerita and co-founder of Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women, which helps women released from jail or prison.

The prize is awarded by the Illinois State University Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies Program for achievements in peacemaking, leadership, initiative, activism, and inspiration within the Bloomington-Normal community.

Throughout her more than 30 years of teaching, she exposed students issues of poverty, homelessness and social justice. She has continued working on those issues individually and through various organizations.

In addition to helping to found Labyrinth, she is a co-director of its board. Labyrinth assists the women in finding housing, education, job training and family support services.

Campbell is also involved with Friends Forever, which has brought Muslim and Jewish youths from Israel to this area to live together as part of an ongoing international program to improve cultural understanding.

Environmental projects in which she has been involved include volunteering at Sugar Grove Nature Center and helping establish the M.J. Rhymer Nature Preserve.

The peace prize is named for ISU emeritus history professors Joseph Grabill and Gerlof Homan, who helped establish ISU's Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies Program.

Campbell received a plaque on Monday and a $250 donation to the Mary Campbell Fund at ISU, which helps students with travel expenses for attending conferences.

Kelley: See Homeless as People

Pantagraph editorial

"The recent Pantagraph articles highlighting the community of people who live outside should trouble this community. However, we should be aware that this isn’t new. There is a lengthy history of people in our community who live outside due to a variety of circumstances. It is a horrible, dangerous way to live.

This sudden publicity is troubling to many of us who care for our friends who live outside. I understand that, as a result of the publicity, PATH has received many donations to “the cause”. On the surface, this may seem like a wonderful story of a community coming together to solve a problem. Sadly, I don’t believe this is the case.

In the past, when attention has been drawn to the plight of people living outside, the level of danger for them has increased. They live in the shadows of our community for a reason. The comments regarding the Pantagraph story on Feb. 26 illuminate some of the reasons. Previously, there have been threats, property destruction and acts of violence committed against them.

It is my hope that, rather than seeing people who live outside as problems or as causes to champion, we can begin to see them as people. People are not problems. The problems are addiction, poverty, and our refusal to welcome people who have made mistakes back into our community and shelters. One thing is certain; the issues that surround chronic homelessness cannot be solved by throwing some money, blankets, and propane at them."

Kelley L. Becker

Apartments Found for Evicted Homeless

Edith Brady-Lunny

The Pantagraph

Several of the 14 homeless residents forced to move from a camp on Bloomington's west side may move into apartments soon, largely funded by donations collected in the last two weeks since news coverage of the encampment began.

The owner of the winter encampment of homeless men and women insisted last week the people clear off his almost 6-acre lot on West Market Street. Citing liability concerns, Carl Thomas said the people must move. Police and workers from PATH (Providing Access to Help) told the homeless group Friday they had until Monday to relocate.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said the last person in the group was packing up Monday morning and preparing to leave. 

Work to find apartments for several of the men was put on a fast track Monday, said PATH's Lori Kimbrough.

"Some are on the verge of being able to get an apartment. We are doing what we can to speed up that process," she said. Money from the agency's rental assistance fund, coupled with donations that continue to come into PATH, are being used to cover rent deposits and other expenses, she said.

Kimbrough said donations and offers to help have been steady since recent stories in The Pantagraph about the camp. In her conversations with the encampment residents, Kimbrough learned most were not aware of the rental assistance program.

People who still want to help can contact the agency at www.pathcrisis.org or call 309-828-1022 or 309-828-1022

Workers with PATH's outreach program for the homeless also are trying to help the others living outdoors, but some have barriers that are tough to overcome.

Four of the men are registered sex offenders, leaving them with very limited housing options, and others have a history of violence or poor credit records.

"Some people have larger hurdles," said Kimbrough. 

The Salvation Army in Bloomington reported Monday that one person came to the shelter from the camp late last week before the relocation order was issued.

Kelley: Homelessness 'Not Going Away'

"There are so many issues at play here. It's cold and miserable outside. Nobody should be living outside. Addiction is a horrible thing. We have no good treatment options (for people without money) should someone decide to seek treatment. 

Everyone in the community should be safe and have the opportunity to feel that they belong. We should care about other people...even if they are different. 

And last, sometimes there isn't a villain. 

My heart is broken because I can't fix this. Grown men are afraid and I can't take that away. 

We have to get around these issues in our community. It's not going to go away. 

What say you?"

Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

On recent police-enforced evictions from the Bloomington homeless tent city

Becker, a Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal participant and homeless advocate, visited the “tent city” and met with the McLean County sheriff and deputies, representatives of the community group PATH, and Carl Thomas, the owner of private property behind the former Bloomington bus station near West Market Street where 14 homeless men had been camping.

Encampment dwellers have been put on notice that they need to relocate by Monday or face trespassing charges. Police and social service workers were working to avoid that outcome, and Becker did media interviews to raise community awareness of the problem.

Thomas, the owner of the 5.8-acre plot, said Wednesday he had concerns about property damage liability issues related to the unauthorized "tent city." He has dealt with summer encampments during the past several years, and reported finding homeless people staying in cars at his auto body shop on nearby Peggy Lane.

He became aware of the current cluster of tents after recent Pantagraph coverage of the issue.

Becker plans to discuss the issue further during the March 13 morning Coffee With a Cop at the McDonald's at 525 Brock Drive (see article below), near the camp site.

"Yes, I am going to coffee with a cop," she said. "I hope some of the people living outside do, too."