SPRINGFIELD — Ahead of colder weather, when shelter becomes more of a necessity, Helping Hands of Springfield is partnering with healthcare organizations to build trust with local residents experiencing homelessness.
The shelter, which has a capacity of 71 for men experiencing homelessness, joined with Fifth Street Renaissance and health care organizations recently to administer COVID-19 vaccines and provide food among other services, The State Journal-Register reports.
“What we really want to do is make sure people are safe and have access to the vaccine,” said Helping Hands executive director Erica Smith. “We’re very interested, particularly with the cold weather coming, to make sure as many people as possible who you shelter are vaccinated.”
Helping Hands hosted its second vaccination clinic Oct. 6, both times partnering with the Illinois Department of Public Health. Smith said 17 people were vaccinated. During the first clinic, 85% of those sheltered at the time received a vaccine.
According to Smith, Fifth Street Renaissance also served 140 meals. The meals included chips, water, hot dogs and burgers grilled by executive director Penny Harris. She said the stop was a part of the organization’s “COVID project” that provides educational materials, screenings and meals.
Shelter workers and other volunteers went to nearby encampments to tell the residents about the COVID-19 vaccine clinic and the meals. Smith said the “compliance rate goes up exponentially” when nursing students from St. John’s College of Nursing or health care professionals are also at the camps, many of which are along 11th Street next to the shelter.
“We know that people who experience homelessness have additional health factors that make it even more important to make sure that they don’t get COVID,” Smith said.
Shelter manager Ronetta Hamilton and Smith while reflecting on the past winter, the first one fully in the COVID-19 pandemic, both agreed the organization has evolved with the need.
Under shelter-in-place rules, Hamilton said staff members and shelter residents became a “50-person family.” Smith, however, said she doesn’t anticipate the same strict rules this winter when shelter numbers increase.
“The same things that people did in their homes to protect each other, we all did here. And I can’t say enough good things about how the men overall took care of each other and took care of themselves and wanted to be healthy this year,” Smith said.
Every week during the school year, a group of about seven St. John’s nursing students help out at the shelter. On every other Wednesday, Hospital Sisters Health System hosts a hands and feet clinic for sheltered residents.
“They were kind of shy about it and just couldn’t really imagine how this related to their nursing education,” said St. John’s chancellor Dr. Charlene Aaron about many of the students on their first time at the shelter. “And then within the very first day they were here, as the hours were going and it was almost time to leave, they didn’t want to leave.”
Memorial Health also provided help and Smith said Central Counties Health Centers was “invaluable” in helping to figure out how they could get prescriptions and other items to the residents who couldn’t leave during the shelter-in-place period.
In the early days of the ongoing pandemic, Hamilton said there was a large uptick in donations and support from private donors and local organizations including the United Way of Central Illinois, Housing Action Illinois and First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, among others.
“That support is what really allowed us to be able to do the 24-hour shelter-in-place,” Hamilton said, “because it was a lot of changes for us to do, to be able to provide all of those services, to have staff around the clock, 24 hours a day.”
Joe Aiello, supervisor of the Capital Township Board of Trustees, said he estimated the township has donated close to 16,000 meals for individuals experiencing homelessness over the past three years.
Private donations were able to pay for medical payments and prescriptions if a shelter resident was uninsured, Smith said.
“We just started paying for things that previously we never could have. … We just had the money to say, ‘Let’s get this done,'” Smith said.
Smith and Hamilton, who oversee the organization’s rapid rehousing program, said the ongoing pandemic revealed how much of a necessity it is to have shelter or housing to properly quarantine during a public health crisis. That philosophy has fundamentally changed the organization, Hamilton said.
“It was really an amazing year for us to grow and build relationships with the clients, but also to get them housed, too,” Hamilton said. “It has been a stressful two years but it has been an amazing two years for our agencies. We’ve evolved so much in those two years.”
The shelter has helped provide temporary housing for more than 60 people under the rapid rehousing program, which launched amid the pandemic, Hamilton said. Several people who were a part of the program are living independently and paying their own bills. A graduation ceremony is planned for Oct. 19.
The local Heartland Continuum of Care, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-designated organization focused on housing vulnerable individuals, recently hired Nick Dodson to help administer 30 housing vouchers for local residents in the city and Sangamon County experiencing homelessness.
Dodson’s position is based in Helping Hands. Money was provided for those vouchers through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Heartland Continuum members have said they see affordable housing as a viable solution to effectively end chronic homelessness in Springfield.
Smith said shelter workers begin the conversation with residents about housing options shortly after they seek care at Helping Hands. Those residents’ names are then put on a list and housing is administered by greatest need.