Springfield, Clark County leaders seek solutions in homelessness crisis

Emergency shelter waiting list reaches 471 people.

Tracy sleeps on an abandoned porch in Springfield with her dog every night.

“It’s getting cold, it’s freezing,” Tracy said. She’s been experiencing homelessness for nine months.

Tracy is among many people, both in Springfield and beyond, who have lost their housing since the pandemic’s start.

Clark County and Springfield city leaders are working to increase emergency shelter spaces in the community and boost the stock of affordable housing in the area as long-term solutions to address the homeless and housing crisis.

“There’s so many homeless people in Springfield. There’s people sleeping downtown on benches. The cold… it’s going to be a problem,” Tracy said.

She said her landlord shut down his properties earlier this year, and she lacked family members that could take her in. She said she attempted to seek shelter through housing organizations in the city, but was not given a place to stay or was turned away.

A city-county homelessness task force – which consists of Clark County and Springfield city agencies and organizations geared toward housing, employment, mental health and more – was started months back to gather more information about how many people locally lack stable housing and what long-term solutions can be worked toward addressing the boom in homelessness.

It’s led by Tina Koumoutsos, housing coordinator at the Clark County Combined Health district.

How big a problem?

Koumoutsos said it’s unclear exactly how many people in the county are experiencing homelessness. A universal, consistent method for tracking the number of unsheltered people in an area doesn’t exist, but the task force is working to find ways to uniquely measure the scope of homelessness in Clark County.

Homelessness is sometimes visual, Koumoutsos said, but it’s difficult to identify people who may have unstable living spaces, such as people who sleep in their cars or who spend the night on people’s couches.

Agencies who serve people experiencing homelessness are reporting a stronger need for assistance since the pandemic’s beginning, and the taskforce aims to use those agencies to help measure homelessness in the area.

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Koumoutsos said the pandemic shed light on the prevalence of homelessness in Clark County. People lost employment, or childcare was not available.

“Our most vulnerable populations were not able to thrive with those financial and economic stresses,” she said.

In March of 2020, when congregate shelter spaces were shut down due to COVID-19, Sheltered Inc. (then called Interfaith Hospitality Network) had 57 people it was serving who shifted to hotels for shelter, according to Elaina Bradley, the executive director of Sheltered Inc.

Emergency waiting list

The number of people needing assistance significantly increased throughout the pandemic. By late May 2020, the nonprofit saw numbers that were beginning to impact staff capacity, and by July, there were no more non-congregate shelter rooms available from the private market, Bradley said. An emergency shelter waiting list was initiated for the first time in modern homeless service history within Clark County.

The demand for services did not decline the following year or the year after. In 2021, Sheltered Inc. provided emergency shelter to 1,735 individuals, which included 644 children; rapidly rehoused 49 households, and prevented more than 107 people from accessing emergency shelter by providing rental arrears and utility assistance.

Sheltered Inc. has helped 1,368 people from January to October this year, 453 of which were children.

Roughly 76% of clients who entered the emergency shelter program so far in 2022 have exited to permanent housing, Bradley said.

The most impactful challenge this year, Bradley said, was to house individuals and families in non-congregate shelters at a rate that has been “unprecedented both in the number of individuals and the costs associated with housing those families in hotels and motels.”

The availability of urban hotel and motel rooms became a temporary solution with the federal government funding their use to provide safe shelter for unsheltered people. That funding and program, however, ended earlier this year.

The need for emergency shelter only continues to rise. As of this week, Sheltered Inc.’s waiting list is 471 individuals.

The nonprofit reopened the single-women congregate emergency shelter this month and continues to operate non-congregate shelters for Clark County families and children.

More housing units

Koumoutsos said the taskforce has prioritized bringing nearly 100 housing units under Springfield Metropolitan Housing up to standard. The city of Springfield, too, is also considering the purchase of the Villager Inn on West North Street to use as housing for displaced people.

The county may have limited options for temporary shelter, but it also lacks a stock of affordable housing: another thing the taskforce hopes to change, Koumoutsos said.

Residents whose housing costs make up half of their household income are “housing cost-burdened.”

“Compound that with the inflationary pressures – the cost of the grocery store, at the gas pump, for your heating and cooling – and people are really struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads,” she said.

Providing options for affordable, decent and safe housing to residents in the area is another priority of the taskforce, Koumoutsos said. The group is exploring ways to revitalize older housing stock in the area and to work with landlords throughout the county to assist with placing people into more permanent housing.

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The demand for affordable housing in the area exceeds the supply, Bradley said.

“Families with the lowest barriers to housing can be rapidly re-housed with services to include deposit, rental and utility assistance, while those with the highest barriers to housing are targeted for permanent supportive housing with ongoing wrap-around services to help sustain their housing,” she said.

Support services critical

Bradley said it’s critical to work toward limiting the time from when people experience homelessness until people are helped return to permanent housing in order to minimize the negative impacts that homelessness can cause.

Area groups – such as Sheltered Inc. and the Nehemiah Foundation – are working to provide support services to people who are food insecure, lack employment and have mental and physical health concerns in addition to housing issues. Sheltered Inc is currently providing hot meals each evening by partnering with area businesses, and supplementing meals throughout the day through a partnership with Second Harvest food bank, Bradley said.

Her organization also provides other needs like case management, clothing, laundry, transportation and life skills classes.

The Nehemiah Foundation also hosts cooling and warming stations during periods of life-threatening heat and cold.

“It takes a really holistic management system to adequately address [the needs of people],” Koumoutsos said. “And that’s a huge challenge.”

Challenging, too, is the stigma that surrounds homelessness. Bradley said many misconceptions about people who lack shelter exist.

“We often hear individuals should just get a job,” Bradley said. “The reality is that many of the individuals we serve are employed or disabled and unable to access full-time employment, living on a very limited income and are faced with inadequate housing opportunities.”

Tracy agreed.

“People look down on homeless people, like all homeless people are bad,” she said. “Not all homeless people have problems, like drug problems or alcohol problems. Even the ones that do… they’re not bad, either.”

Bill Lackey contributed to this report.

By the Numbers:

1,368: Total number of people served by Sheltered, Inc. so far this year

453: Number of children served by Sheltered, Inc. this year

471: Number of people on Sheltered, Inc.’s waitlist for emergency shelter

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