Janie Medford lives in a steel shed near downtown Belleville with her fiance Dennis Dixon.
The homeless couple hopes they will soon be able to leave the shed and move into a family member’s travel trailer once they find a place to park it.
And the pressure is on to find a home. Medford just found out she is pregnant with twins, and her due date is March 21.
“It’s shelter” is how Medford quietly described the shed. Dixon said he’s been able to get a lock on the shed door because someone recently stole a bunch of their belongings.
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In an effort to help homeless persons such as Medford and Dixon, a coalition of groups is working to open the proposed Hospitality House of St. Clair County inside The Salvation Army off West Main Street in Belleville. The plan calls for homeless people to be able to find a respite during the day by taking a shower or doing their laundry. Also, a case manager would be on hand to counsel homeless persons about the resources available to help them get back on their feet.
On Saturday night, you can go to a fundraiser to benefit the Hospitality House. The event will be at Shenanigan’s at 6401 W. Main St.
On the streets
Medford, who was a librarian in Arkansas for seven years, said she became homeless about two years ago.
She said her life unraveled after she got divorced, was run over by a truck and had difficulties with being a “really bad alcoholic.”
Dixon, who said he spent several years in prison for burglary charges, fell into homelessness after the death of his former fiancee in a motorcycle crash in 2015.
“I kind of went downhill after that,” Dixon said. “I started drinking and drugging and just gave up, lost hope in life.”
He no longer could afford the place he was staying.
I started drinking and drugging and just gave up, lost hope in life.
“I just kept going downhill deeper and deeper.”
Medford met Dixon about five months ago when she was working in a Belleville convenience store.
“He had been coming in for a couple of weeks, and he came in one day and threw a flower on the counter and said he would be back when I got off work,” Medford said as they both laughed.
“And that’s how I met him.”
She no longer works at the store and said they are looking for jobs.
“We’ve both have been looking for a job, but it’s really hard when you don’t have an address to put down, when you don’t have a phone number to put down,” Medford said.
We’ve both have been looking for a job, but it’s really hard when you don’t have an address to put down, when you don’t have a phone number to put down.
Medford, 39, would like to work for a library again, but she said those jobs are hard to find and often require a master’s degree that she doesn’t have.
Dixon, also 39, said he has worked odd jobs for short periods but has not been able to land a full-time job.
“This town is kind of spread out, so sometimes you have to walk 20 blocks this way and then 40 blocks that way,” Medford said. If the couple had a car it might take an hour, but she said, “It’ll take us all day to do one thing.”
Dixon and Medford each qualify to receive an Illinois Link card that allows them to buy about $400 worth of groceries each month.
“If it wasn’t for Link, we’d starve to death,” Dixon said.
The St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department is tasked with helping homeless or near-homeless individuals and families.
In 2016, the agency received inquiries from 1,065 households of either homeless or near-homeless people. The staff provided direct assistance to 563 of these households and referred the remaining ones to other resources, according to the department’s annual report.
The department is funded entirely by federal and state grants that totaled about $15.6 million in 2016. Along with helping the homeless, the grants department assists people in myriad ways. The department pays to repair homes for low-income families, fix storm drainage problems, support food pantries and offers employment assistance throughout five counties.
The Rev. Cory Hartz, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Belleville, said his church at 47 N. Douglas Ave. has been helping homeless people for the past four summers and three winters. During a heat wave this summer, he had dozens of people visit the church to cool off and get help in finding a home. On one day, 42 people stopped by for help, and Hartz estimates 75 percent of them were homeless.
When you’re not homeless, you don’t notice it for some reason. But when you’re out there right in the middle of it, it’s kind of shocking.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until I became homeless myself,” said Dixon, who has sought relief at Trinty United.
“When you’re not homeless, you don’t notice it for some reason,” Dixon said. “But when you’re out there right in the middle of it, it’s kind of shocking.”
“Dennis wasn’t kidding when he said there are a lot of people out there, and it’s only getting worse now, especially since the Rice shelter closed down across the river,” Hartz said. “There was a time when I thought I knew about everybody on the street, but there is whole new flush of homeless people who are coming from Missouri.”
The Rev. Larry Rice, of the New Life Evangelistic Center, operated an overnight shelter for homeless persons in downtown St. Louis, but earlier this year, the city forced him to close the shelter because he did not have a occupancy permit.
‘One-stop’ Hospitality House
In January, the News-Democrat reported on the preliminary steps to establish the Hospitality House of St. Clair County in the basement of The Salvation Army building at 20 Glory Place, which is currently being renovated.
Organizers don’t have an opening date yet but said they have been making progress on the Hospitality House, which would not be an overnight shelter.
In 2009, The Salvation Army closed its overnight shelter, and Belleville has not had one since. The shelter was shut down after the city required The Salvation Army to provide the police department with the names of people spending the night in the shelter. Salvation Army officials have said they closed the shelter because releasing the names of their clients violated their privacy rights and that new regulations imposed by the city would require additional staffing that the group could not afford.
During extreme weather conditions, local aid groups in recent years have distributed hotel vouchers that have been financed by the former Belleville Township and the city of Belleville’s General and Community Assistance Program, which took over the township’s duties in May. This summer, the City Council authorized $15,000 for hotel vouchers.
The Hospitality House is being organized by the Angels of St. Clair County, The Salvation Army, the city of Belleville’s Backbone Committee for the Homeless, area churches and others.
Some of the services and aid the Hospitality House hopes to offer homeless people include: showers, a laundry room to wash clothes, haircuts, basic medical screenings, access to a computer, motel vouchers, bus passes, food, clothing and help in obtaining a photo ID.
As well as giving the homeless a place to find respite during the day, the Hospitality House also hopes to have a paid, part-time case worker who would counsel homeless people after their basic needs were handled.
That’s the goal, that we’re going to have one single place, or one-stop shop, for our homeless population to get the help they need.
Cory Hartz, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Belleville
“There are a lot of resources in St. Clair County that the homeless can take advantage of,” and the Hospitality House would be a good way to coordinate efforts of all the groups that provide relief, said Elizabeth Winchester, a community organizer who is working to get the Hospitality House open.
“We’re hoping to provide case work for those who have a need and a desire to get off the street and make decisions to put themselves on a good path,” Hartz said.
The case worker would talk to homeless people about health care, mental health care, how to battle addictions, job opportunities and ways to get them into a home.
Hartz said the plan is to get the homeless “back to being self-confident and productive members of this community.”
“That’s the goal, that we’re going to have one single place, or one-stop shop, for our homeless population to get the help they need.”
The Hospitality House could be a clearinghouse for various agencies that help the homeless, Hartz said.
“We found if we can get them communicating with each other, we can accomplish a whole lot more,” Hartz said. “I’ve seen it happen more and more that if we can just get two agencies talking about a person with the goal of helping them find shelter, then we can get something done.”
Medford and Dixon said a place like the Hospitality House would be a godsend for people living on the edge.
“I think it would help lots and lots of people,” Dixon said. “I think it would be a lot better for our people because it will give ‘em some kind of goal to press forward toward.
“Me and her would definitely be wanting to get involved and use it to kind of better ourselves, and then maybe after we do come and get ourselves together, we might be able come reach out to help somebody else.”
How to help
- What: Puttin’ on the Hometown Ritz fundraiser to support the proposed Hospitality House of St. Clair County, which plans to give homeless persons a place to “rest, refresh and receive assistance.” Formal attire is encouraged because “helping others is always in style.”
- When: 7-11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30
- Where: Shenanigan’s at 6401 W. Main St., Belleville
- Cost: $35 per person or $55 per couple at the door
- Info: Puttinonthehometownritz@gmail.com