Coalition Partners on the Front Lines: Southern Illinois Coalition for the Homeless

This week, we are highlighting the Southern Illinois Coalition for the Homeless, which provides affordable housing and supportive services, while working to eliminate the causes of homelessness in the southern twenty-four counties of Illinois. We spoke with their Executive Director Camille Dorris to hear more about their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is the COVID-19 crisis affecting the populations you serve?

It is affecting them in different ways. For the ones who were already housed in our Transitional Housing, Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing programs, they still have a roof over their heads, but many have lost their jobs, are experiencing a cut in hours, or layoff so they can’t pay their rent according to their occupancy agreement. Luckily we are able to adjust this, so some aren’t paying at all. There is an increase in stress levels due to children being home regarding home schooling and child care and just the general anxiety of the crisis and unknown. For those who haven’t received the stimulus money or unemployment, they are financially struggling to keep up with other household needs and worried about how they will get caught up with utility bills and such. Several people have called wanting assistance that were staying with family or friends (so not considered homeless), but who are being told they have to leave for fear of the virus. Those who are literally homeless don’t have access to as many establishments that they can go inside to get warm, stay dry, use the bathroom, charge their phones etc. Both of our emergency shelters aren’t taking people, but a warming center that was only supposed to be open during the cold months stayed open to provide 24 hour emergency shelter. They are beyond capacity, so people have no where to go. We received funding for emergency lodging to assist a few, but not all.

How has this crisis affected your ability to serve your community? How have you adapted to meet the evolving needs of your community?

It has been very difficult. We have adjusted to a lot of phone work and limited face-to-face work which doesn’t give you the same raport building opportunity and slows things down. Luckily some restrictions through HUD have been lessened and we eased up on some of our procedures to help fast track some things. We applied for emergency lodging funds to meet the unsheltered need in our community, but once again, it hasn’t been enough. We have been trying to keep up with best practices for COVID-19 screening and safety protocols with limited staff and supplies. We try to stay informed about the resources for food, supplies, meals, financial assistance etc. so that we can provide that information to those in need. We have been providing assistance with emergency food, hygiene and household supplies with the increase in our DHS grant. We have two staff members who are at high risk, so we have had to adjust how we work and interact to provide them with extra protection against the spread of the virus.

What do providers in your coalition need to better support individuals experiencing homelessness?

Financial assistance is our number one need, including more funding for homeless prevention programs. Low income families don’t have a financial safety net so we get a lot of calls for rental and utility assistance. We are able to adjust people’s rent or make the decision to not charge rent for a period of time, but we don’t have enough funding to assist with utility bills. We also need more PPE, cleaning supplies, emergency lodging funds and utility assistance.

What do you need from your elected leaders and other key decision makers?

Emergency lodging funds and more meal sites.