PEORIA — As a cold snap of historic proportions descended upon central Illinois, Chris Schaffner, program director for the JOLT Foundation, was planning to distributed blankets and urgent advice to homeless people living in tents in Pekin.
“I’m going to let them know what options they have,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday morning. “If they want to go with us today, we’ll take them to a shelter or warming station.”
Even in the depths of winter, people are still living outdoors in the Peoria area, said Schaffner.
“We have regulars who come in struggling with chaotic drug use. Because of that they have a hard time staying indoors. They prefer to stay out because they will be kicked out of the shelter,” said Schaffner.
After the first heavy snowfall in November Schaffner posted a request on Facebook for a tent for one of his homeless clients. In a short period of time, seven tents were donated. The JOLT Foundation is always looking for items for their homeless clients — find the link to an Amazon.com wish list on the JOLT Foundation Facebook page.
Drug use and mental health issues are the main reasons people find themselves homeless. Earlier this winter Schaffner helped a homeless veteran suffering from PTSD. The man has since found permanent housing with the help of the VA, said Schaffner. Another struggling population are LGBTQ people who don’t feel comfortable in shelters run by religious organizations, said Schaffner. Transgender people also don’t feel safe around other residents in the shelters, he said.
“There is a handful of homeless queer youth in this town and they all say the same thing,” said Schaffner. “But these kids are resilient — they will probably be couch surfing this week.”
With record-breaking temperatures and wind chills coming tonight, Schaffner is one of many people working to make sure the area’s most vulnerable citizens are safe.
“We are working to get extra food and blankets in case we see an influx of people,” said Kristy Schofield, director of homeless and housing at the Dream Center in Peoria.
The extraordinary cold has prompted the shelter to accept people 24-hours-a day — normally the cutoff time for the emergency shelter is 10 p.m..
The Dream Center shelter takes in everyone except for single men, who are redirected to the Salvation Army or Peoria Rescue Ministries, a brisk walk away. This week Dream Center employees started driving men to the nearby shelters instead of letting them walk.
“The truth is, in this weather, anyone walking to the Salvation Army could die in that time,” said Schofield. “We don’t want to see anyone die because of this cold.”
The Peoria Rescue Ministries was already operating under their winter policy — men are allowed to stay in the shelter all day when the weather is below freezing. As temperatures dip into the danger zone, they have also relaxed their behavior policy.
“Folks who come in under the influence, we let them stay in the receiving room, or we get them to where they need to be,” said Brian Butler, men’s excel renewal program director for Peoria Rescue Ministries. The shelter still has room for more — they currently have 60-70 clients and can take 80.
While homeless people are clearly at risk in extreme weather, everyone will need to practice caution when they go outside on Tuesday night and Wednesday. Dream Center employees have been broadcasting this important information to their clients.
“Standing and waiting outside for that bus even five minutes can give you frostbite,” said Schofield. “What we are telling people is not to do any appointments tomorrow. Hold off until Thursday or Friday.”
Dream Center has been handing out scarves to people who have to be outside.
“We have a ton of those. People love to donate scarves and hats and coats,” said Schofield.
The Dream Center is ready to take in extra people as needed, and they will be open 24-hours a day through the weekend in case families suddenly find themselves homeless.
“We’re gonna keep that policy in place through the weekend just to make sure, because people’s pipes could have frozen,” said Schofield.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.