Champaign organizations offer assistance to homeless

Volunteer Andrea Britton and Donald Todd at the Phoenix Daytime Drop-In Center on Wednesday, April 29.

By Andrew Nowak

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on panhandling within Campustown.

Tony Comtois is fine with being a “24/7” employee because he helps provide people with something he was once given: a second chance.

In his hometown of Rantoul, Comtois was working at a Conair Corporation factory and living in an apartment with no utilities. He was focused more on drugs and drinking than he was on working and paying rent. 

After failing a drug test, Comtois lost his job and his apartment. In July 2006, he moved to Champaign after burning all of his bridges back home; he began living at the TIMES Center, a homeless shelter for men transitioning between residences. He was 40 and spent the next 22 months in the shelter. 

Now, he is a mentor for C-U at Home, a recovering alcoholic and an apartment renter in Urbana. He conducts street outreach for C-U at Home, which consists of driving through the Champaign area in his truck and checking in on the homeless population. He also works at the Phoenix Daytime Drop-In Center, a part of C-U at Home. 

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Comtois said he truly loves his job — he visits the homeless and other shelters while on vacation. When he went to Southern California last year for his father’s funeral, he drove down to Skid Row to see shelters. 

“I just can’t imagine how they deal with it down there. There’s just people for blocks, living on the sidewalks, and you look at some of them, and there’s like nobody home,” he said. 

Comtois said C-U at Home’s approach to aiding the homeless changed over time. At first, the organization housed the homeless in houses they owned.

However, the system wasn’t working and after reading “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton, the staff of C-U at Home decided to switch gears. “Toxic Charity” details how modern charities can negatively affect the people they originally set out to help and describes how to structure a charitable organization that serves people correctly and creates lasting benefits.

Now the organization focuses on offering services to people and finding ways to get them motivated to change their own lives.

“If you want to turn your life around, what are you gonna to do?” Comtois said. “What’s your part in it gonna be? More a hand-up than a hand-out type of concept.”

The Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care put together a 10-year plan in order to end chronic homelessness in Champaign County by 2014. 

Champaign City Council Member Karen Foster said she doesn’t think the homeless and panhandlers necessarily have an effect on the city or those who visit. She said she doesn’t see as many panhandlers in downtown Champaign as she used to.

Foster attributes this to Restoration Urban Ministries, the Phoenix Daytime Drop-In Center and other organizations who deal with Champaign’s homeless. 

She said the Champaign City Council hasn’t done anything in the past few years to work on the homeless population.

Comtois said most shelters have different rules that a lot of panhandlers don’t want to follow, such as no drinking or using drugs, not frequently moving in or out of the shelter and having no history of violence. 

According to the Community Elements website, the TIMES Center offers many community services and can house 70 men.

Robert Swinford, director of the Salvation Army’s Stepping Stone shelter, said the shelter has three programs for homeless men. There are three emergency beds, which people can stay in up to three days. There are 45 beds for the Stepping Stone program, in which people can stay up to a year and four transitional beds, in which people can stay up to two years.

The Stepping Stone Shelter has extra rooms for times of extremely hot or cold weather, too. 

Carle Foundation Hospital also experiences a seasonal uptick during cold or hot weather. Larry Sapp, director of Carle Arrow Ambulance Service, estimates the hospital responds to five to 10 homeless or transitioning individuals a month, which would be about 1 to 2 percent of overall responses.

A majority of calls regarding the homeless come from the general public who are concerned about the individual. The police are called for a welfare check and usually call Carle.

Sapp said the homeless do not get a lot of the preventative care they require and therefore a lot of them have underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart issues and mental health issues. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 32 homeless persons in Champaign County and 2,168 in Illinois were reported to have severe mental illness

However, Carle’s staff doesn’t worry about payment until a patient gets the care they need. After that, if someone is in financial need, Carle approaches it with an “aggressive” community care policy. For the homeless, it often means the bills are written-off in full, Sapp said.

Carle’s community care benefit plan details rates for families with different sizes and incomes. For example, a household of one with an income at or below $23,340 would be discounted 100 percent of the bill. 

“These folks need the care that we provide, and it’s good to see that the public looks out for ‘em,” Sapp said. 

Korey Johnson is no stranger to medical issues. Johnson, 48, is homeless and panhandles on Green Street. He said he cannot work due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

His wife, Michelle Saathoff, has an amputated leg and can also be seen on Green Street. Johnson is hoping to get the disability benefits he applied for in November, he said while waiting to cash in a video gambling slip at Murphy’s Pub Monday.

Johnson and his wife have been together for eight years and originally met 19 years ago at the St. Jude Catholic Workers House. The couple got married on Aug. 22, 2013 in Crystal Lake Park at a service provided by C-U at Home.

“Love is having something when you’ve got nothing,” Johnson said.

Getting married allowed the couple to use the housing service previously provided by C-U at Home. 

An average day on Green Street is tough for Johnson, who said he goes out each day to try and make enough money for a hotel room and food for him and his wife. 

If he is out from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., he usually makes around $45, which is enough for the couple to get a hotel room. His worst day was seven dollars.

But if Johnson doesn’t get the $40 he needs for a hotel room, him and his wife try and get away with staying the night in a hospital visiting room. He said they can’t camp out at night in their condition.

Johnson said there are kind people who do feed him on Green Street. Although students and passersby are skeptical, Johnson described his way of trying to overcome that.

“You ask for help, but then at the same time you’re selling yourself,” Johnson said. “Let them know who you are because if people get scared of you all the time, they won’t give you anything.”

Johnson said he recognizes students that pass by and some regularly stop to talk to him.

“A personality goes a long way if you know how to utilize it,” Johnson said. 

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