Poverty in McLean County is 'Bigger Than We Think'

Colleen Reynolds


McLean County’s median household income is almost $65,000, but panelists at a McLean County League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night said despite that, the problem of poverty is creating waiting lists for social service agencies and leaving some people without help.

Lisa Hirtzig was among those who shared their personal stories. Hirtzig was in a women’s shelter with a broken neck when she learned about the YWCA’s Labyrinth House which provides transitional housing for formerly imprisoned women. Hirtzig grew up in foster care and went from one abusive relationship to the next.

"I lost my job. I lost my home which made me lose my car. Losing my car, I had no way to get to anything," she said. "It really put me down. I had nothing ... nobody," she told a packed Community Room at the Normal Public Library. 

Starla Hays has been at Mayors Manor in Bloomington for nearly three years. The 26-unit apartment building provides permanent, supportive housing to formerly homeless, single adults. Hays was married for 22 years and after a divorce, she turned to drugs and alcohol and her downward spiral began.

"Mayors Manor saved my life," she said wiping tears from her eyes.

"I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I just want you to help because there are so, so many out there," she said referring to others who need assistance, often because one crisis was amplified by poverty and a lack of resources.

"We have working poor in McLean County. People are working two jobs and still are in poverty," said Mayors Manor Representative Tasha Davis.

Illinois State University graduate student Jeanna Campbell explained why she started the School Street Food Pantry. While she was an undergraduate, Campbell found herself working for poverty-level wages and scrounging for food. As a Type 1 diabetic, she also had costly prescriptions that she bought instead of groceries, only to find her blood sugar falling to dangerously low levels when she had nothing to eat at the end of the month.

Campbell said she wound up taking an even lower-paying job to qualify for government assistance when she encountered health problems and had no more sick days.

"It was definitely a cycle and a situation that left me in a bad place."

According to the Heartland Alliance, slightly more than 21,200 people in Mclean County live in poverty. Center for Hope Ministries Outreach Coordinator Pat Turner, who fled Chicago public housing, said poverty is a multiplier because those in it can't rely on personal resources to get past a setback.

"It's bigger than we think," Turner declared as she pointed out her ministry served 4,600 individuals in its food pantry last year.

Turner believes lawmakers need to enact legislation that addresses some of the root causes of poverty.

"Racial injustice, ageism, sexism, inequality, classism—those are the things that feed into poverty and leave people feeling hopeless," she said.

Turner, who is also a candidate for Normal Town Council, suggested public policy makers need to initiate systematic changes.

"We've got to get on the preventive end. We've got to start building families. We've got to start investing in our young people and start on the solutions side instead of dealing with it on the crisis side," she said.

Moderator Laurie Bergner of the League of Women Voters of McLean County agreed with an audience member who suggested with so many new minorities in leadership positions in Springfield, now is a good time to start lobbying for legislative changes including raising the minimum wage.

Bergner advised panelists to form a lobbying coalition.

"I think going in groups is important because you have a better chance you'll be listened to," she said.

Simulation Offers Chance to 'Walk In Their Shoes'

McLean County's Multicultural Leadership Program and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church are sponsoring "Walk In Their Shoes," a poverty simulation, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22.

The simulation is designed to provide Twin Citians a glimpse into the life of a family in poverty. Participants who arrive at 4:25 p.m. will be assigned to a family and attempt to tackle the challenges of being low income in the U.S.

The event is free, and participants are encouraged to bring a donation to the Mt. Pisgah Food Pantry if possible. Recommend for ages 16 and up.

League of Women Voters to Explore 'Hidden McLean County'

The League of Women Voters of McLean County will attempt to uncover the facts regarding two critical segments of "hidden McLean County" -- very low-income families that need early childhood services, and victims of domestic violence -- during a Tuesday, January 26 program at the Normal Public Library Community Room.

Members of the 7 p.m. panel discussion will include Jaylene Taubert, Parent Family and Community Engagement Manager for Heartland Head Start; and Senna Adjabeng, director of MCCA's Countering Domestic Violence and Mayors Manor programs.

The program is free to the public. 


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.

Group Focuses on Bringing Dignity, 'Personal Capacity' to Charity Efforts

Representatives of local non-profits, agencies, and churches joined Monday to explore new ways to help the community’s disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and currently disconnected – and, perhaps more importantly, help them help themselves.

And while one local minister at Home Sweet Home’s (HSH) Forging A Better Way meeting on Bloomington’s east side emphasized “there isn’t a single person here who’s being ‘served,’” he and others agreed those who need essential services and assistance should play an expanded role in determining how local charities structure and administer them.

"The Forging a Better Way task force has outlined the goal of restoring a sense of dignity, worth, and personal capacity to our charitable systems,” concluded participant Luella Mahannah, counseling director of Integrity Counseling, on Bloomington’s west side. “At the meeting tonight, it became clear that we must include the ‘consumers’ of charitable services in developing and delivery of such systems. To not engage those in need will lead to continuing to develop mechanisms that could likely be enabling rather than empowering."

Working off major focus areas identified recently by an HSH steering committee, the group explored issues including:

* Money/Income-related interests (debt reduction/asset building, loan alternatives, fiscal fitness, employment opportunities, etc.). A major focus of the group Monday was the importance of developing low-income finance alternatives to local “payday loan” services that according to New Covenant Community church Social Justice Group representative Pam Lubeck too often “jack up” weekly fees, exacerbating already burdensome debt. That “snowball effect” impacts the financial stability of many families dependent on payday lenders, HSH’s Matt Burgess stressed.

Mid-Illini Credit Union, which operates a branch at Bloomington’s Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, offers low-volume loans free of fees to neighborhood residents, while Next Step, a partnership between Mid Central Community Action, United Way of McLean County, Heartland Community College, and the University of Illinois College of Law provides free services to help individuals and families gain financial independence. HSH’s Faith and Finance classes help the mission’s displaced and disadvantaged clients learn about budgeting, spending, and future saving – Burgess reported eight to nine individuals recently completed a recent class conducted at Bloomington’s The Hub.

Monday’s participants also were enthusiastic about the possibility of “microloan” programs similar to international financing options that can help launch promising but income-strapped enterprises. Such programs have spurred development of small-scale, grassroots local businesses in Africa, Asia, and South America, and participants suggested they could be used as an “incubator” for cooperative neighborhood economic development.

“When you invest in micro-credit, you get your money back,” Lubeck noted.

She and others agreed financial education and awareness should begin early, so teens receiving their first paycheck can start from a position of security. Afterschool programs and school-based curricula and extracurricular activities could help offer that education.

* Health concerns (both physical and mental health, as well as issues relating to substance abuse recovery). Even as new health care law rolls out slowly to improve options for low-income Americans, a number of key issues face disadvantaged communities, including coordination of services, basic transportation to and from health care providers and resources, state funding cuts that endanger preventive programs that help reduce future health care costs, and the impact of mental health issues on employment, housing, and law enforcement/incarceration.

Especially challenging are the issues of health care access – first-time and low-income mothers-to-be currently must travel to Peoria for prenatal services and counseling – and cost – health insurance premiums remain high, and as one participant said, even out-of-pocket deductibles that lower premium costs “clobber” low-income families.

HSH is helping address the needs of essentially landlocked west side residents through its mobile health unit that travels the community twice a month, with two exam rooms. The McLean County Board of Health’s Cory Tello notes that each month, doctors visit Normal’s Fairview School – the area’s currently sole “community school” that serves as a hub for supplemental medical and other area services. She maintained additional community schools could help multiply health options for the Twin Cities.

Fundamentally, Bloomington-Normal’s underserved communities need “a full continuum of services, from pre-birth to senior care,” Tello maintained. Community colleges and area universities could play a role in expanding low-cost or non-profit services while training future providers.

* “Neighboring” concerns – how to be a good neighbor within the community. Local churches, organizations such as HSH the Boys and Girls Clubs, and schools already cooperate in providing outreach and support for disadvantaged youth and others throughout the community, but Monday’s participants saw the need to developing new mentoring relationships, referral options for providing ride assistance for low-income or physically challenged residents, and art programs that could inspire and “empower” young people.

Bloomington’s John M. Scott Health Resource Center handles transit where needed for maternal and child visits; Faith in Action is an interfaith network of volunteers, churches, and community organizations that assist individuals over 60 and their caregivers. The McLean County YWCA’s Stepping Stones program counsels victims of sexual assault, and Integrity Counseling and Heart to Heart offer mental health services at rates low-income clients can afford.

But costs again are a key factor in expanding or even maintaining existing services. John Scott lost its vision program in December, and there currently are no convenient transportation options for Medicaid patients who must travel to Peoria for oral surgery.