A small group of people on Saturday morning met in Belleville to discuss what they described as a big, complex topic: How can society take care of homeless people?
Jesse Arms, president of the Coalition for Economic and Social Justice, organized the meeting of a dozen people at the West Branch of the Belleville Public Library. This issue has been the subject of many meetings since the Salvation Army closed its homeless shelter on West Main Street in Belleville in 2009.
“People need somewhere to stay, said Solomon Brooks, who participates in a program at the New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter founded by the Rev. Larry Rice in downtown St. Louis in the 1970s. “They need some building to go into to keep warm in the winter and keep cool in the summer. And they also need other resources there like counseling, they need the churches.”
Chris Rice, the son of Larry Rice, said the New Life Evangelistic Center doesn’t take government funding but he noted governments across the region should cooperate to help the homeless. He said governments work together to build roads and help large corporations.
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“What I don’t see really being talked about are the homeless, the vulnerable, the disabled, the poor,” Chris Rice said.
Gerry Hasenstab, executive director of Catholic Urban Programs in East St. Louis, said agencies in Illinois and Missouri have been cooperating. “We’re starting to do more talking to see how we manage services better between the two regions,” he said.
Hasenstab also said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has not been providing money for communities that want to open emergency shelters.
Arms asked for comments about whether a permanent winter shelter should be opened in Belleville and an 8 p.m. deadline Belleville has for emergency shelters to close during extremely cold and hot weather.
“We need a permanent winter shelter at the very least here in Belleville,” Arms said. “In my good conscience, I don’t see how we can do less.”
But how would that shelter get opened? Would it be run by a government, a church or coalition of churches? Or a group such as the Salvation Army?
Trinity United Church of Christ on Douglas Avenue in Belleville was one of the Belleville churches that opened an emergency shelter last summer and last winter. Trinity Pastor Cory Hartz, who was unable to attend Saturday’s meeting, said his church is not equipped to house people overnight and he doesn’t know if there is one in Belleville that would do this.
Hartz said he was concerned for the homeless people who had to leave the church at 8 p.m., especially in the winter.
“Every day we were able to make sure that everyone who came through the door had a place to sleep that night,” Hartz said. This primarily was accomplished by using a hotel voucher system that was organized by Catholic Urban Programs.
Hasenstab said he plans to have this voucher system up and running again this year during extreme weather conditions.
Hartz said he had about up to 17 people getting respite in his church during the heat wave in August and he had about five or six people take shelter during a cold snap last winter.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, who has been meeting with advocates for the homeless but was unable to make Saturday’s meeting, said the 8 p.m. deadline is necessary because churches need to meet fire and safety codes before a congregation could house people overnight. “Liability wise it is extremely dangerous for the churches,” he said.
“We’re got to have a plan, and I’m serious and that’s why we’ve met so often, to put together a future shelter for the homeless in St. Clair County,” Eckert said. “Ultimately, I would love to see something develop.”