Angie Kusterin, a member of the Connecting Grounds Lived Experience Cohort, shares her statistics from the surveyed 278 individuals (about a 10 percent sample size of unsheltered individuals in Springfield). (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Contrary to a common misconception, most of the people who are unsheltered in Springfield have lived here for years — with nearly 30 percent having lived here for more than 25 years.

These findings come from a recent research survey conducted by The Connecting Grounds, a church in Springfield that focuses on helping the unsheltered community, those in poverty and families with children in foster care

Nearly 280 unsheltered persons took the survey over a three-month period.

The results were presented May 12 at the Midtown Carnegie Library by the Lived Experience Cohort, a group of about 20 people who have experienced being unsheltered in Springfield. 

The event was the group’s first public advocacy presentation.

“Research is a big part of what we do at The Connecting Grounds,” said Pastor Christie Love at the presentation. “We are big believers that you need a combination of statistics and stories to be able to advocate correctly and appropriately because we need to hear from the people who are directly impacted by policies, by procedures and by practices.”

Members of the Lived Experience Cohort came up with the questions for the survey. The group meets every two weeks to brainstorm about projects and programs that would help the unsheltered community. 

Chris Hendon, Angie Kusterin, and Lauren Inman listen while other presenters read off statistics from the 2023 survey done by The Connecting Grounds. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“This particular study was a result of a lot of conversations of individuals in this room,” Love said. “We noticed some public narratives in our community from leaders, from law enforcement that really kind of have tried to portray individuals in this community without stable shelter as criminals, as transients, as people who have not lived here for very long. And we felt like it was really important to try to capture some data to show the actual situation of what we have happening in our city on the streets.”

Short life expectancy and other chilling numbers

Cohort member Angie Kusterin presented the following data about how long unsheltered people surveyed have been in Springfield: 

  • 4.7 percent of those surveyed had been in Springfield less than 30 days
  • 10.4 percent said less than a year but more than a month
  • 16.5 percent said 1 to 4 years
  • 21.6 percent said 5 to 10 years 
  • 17.6 percent said 11-24 years
  • 29.1 percent said more than 25 years

“The term transient gets thrown around by city leaders,” Love said, following Kusterin’s presentation. “And technically, that definition is someone who’s been in a community less than 30 days. So it’s really important to me that we all note that that is probably the smallest percentage of people on our streets both now and previously.”

Cohort member Delena Gilliam spoke about the negative health impacts that come with living years without stable shelter. She shared this information from the Federal Government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness: People who experience homelessness have an average life expectancy of around 50 years of age, almost 20 years lower than people who are housed.

“Our community has lost many of our unsheltered neighbors over the last two years. Many were longtime residents,” Gilliam said. “Their lives were lost to chronic health conditions, pedestrian-versus-motor vehicle accidents, substance abuse and illness.”

Chris Hendon, a member of the cohort, shared that 23 percent of those surveyed said they were born and raised in Springfield and 14.7 percent said they moved here before age 18 and stayed.

Delana Gilliam is a part of a group of formerly unsheltered people who get together to talk about ways to help others who are still on the streets of Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Chris Ebbs, also with the cohort, shared that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed had been without stable shelter for a year or more. 

Love pointed out that the Springfield 2021 Community Focus Report identified “affordable housing” as one of the “red flag” issues in Springfield.

“They wrote Springfield faces a critical shortage of safe, decent and affordable housing, which is a reoccurring red flag,” Love said. “They also stated that the local need for housing has been exacerbated by the pandemic which slowed construction and increased construction costs. At the same time, more college students seek off-campus apartments. And all of these circumstances have led to an increasingly competitive housing market.”

Surveyors looked at tickets, fines

Survey participants were asked about how many times they have been ticketed for trespassing while unsheltered in Springfield. While the majority — 53.2 percent — have not yet been ticketed for trespassing, that still leaves about 47 percent who said they have been ticketed. Eight respondents (2.9 percent) said they’d been ticketed 10 or more times. 

Of the 76 respondents who said they currently owe fines and fees, the average owed to municipal court is $411, the study found. The highest amount reported during the survey was $1,000, with five people saying they owed about that much due to trespassing charges. 

Love said she’s been able to forge a “great working relationship” recently with the municipal court.

Chris Hendon (right) has been able to stay off the street and get sober because of the help he received from The Connecting Grounds and Pastor Christie Love (left). (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“We’ve been able to work with them on trespassing tickets and getting those fines and fees converted into volunteer hours in our volunteer program,” she said. “If someone has $400 in trespassing fines and we can get that approved by the judge and by the court, that would translate into roughly $10 an hour and so that translates to about 40 hours of community service that they would need to come in and do at the Outreach Center. 

“Then we can let the municipal court know it has been fulfilled and taken care of,” Love continued. “And those fines and fees are wiped out. Several people in this room have utilized that program to be able to wipe out some fines and fees.”

The complete study is available on The Connecting Grounds’ website.

About the Lived Experience Cohort

In a later interview, Love explained the cohort was created in 2019 as a leadership development program. The group would meet every other week to talk about leadership, communication  and possible projects the group could take on that would help those living on the streets.

One of their current projects is placing water bottle refill stations across Springfield that cohort members will refill every night during the summer. The group has been working with Love’s husband to build the stations, which will be locked to reduce the likelihood of tampering.

Darlene Steele reports that the greatest barrier for people to secure stable housing in Springfield is not having a place to stay while they get back on their feet. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

There will be 10 refill stations around Springfield. Folks can use the Shelter SGF app to find the locations with a Google map for directions. The goal is to cut down on single-use plastic bottles and keep unsheltered persons hydrated during the hottest months of the year. 

Love said the cohort typically has 20 to 35 members, mostly people who are staying at The Connecting Grounds’ respite homes, its transitional shelter program and/or individuals who have been volunteering at The Connecting Grounds Outreach Center and have got into housing. 

The group has been instrumental in guiding Connecting Grounds’ research and advocacy efforts, Love said.

“It benefits the community hugely because we have a long record in this community of trying to solve the problems related to poverty and homelessness without involving people who have direct experience living with poverty and homelessness,” Love said. “That firsthand experience is critical to us creating effective solutions. That’s really, really important. And my hope is this is a group that’s going to get the opportunity to engage with city leaders, with other nonprofit leaders and faith leaders in a wide variety of ways.

“What they get out of it, I think, is a sense of pride and accomplishment,” she said. “It’s a sense of being heard and helping the voices of their peers to be heard.”

Pastor eyes marijuana tax as potential source of funding

As the event at Midtown Carnegie Library wrapped up, Love took a moment to speak about a potential new source of funding to help those in poverty: a local sales tax on recreational marijuana. She said several advocates are looking at other cities around the country and state that are considering or are using recreational marijuana taxes as a source of revenue for poverty alleviation funds. 

Chris Ebbs shares that of the unsheltered Springfieldians surveyed in 2023, most have been on the street for less than a year. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“We would love to see the creation of a community improvement fund that focuses for the first set amount of years strictly on poverty-related barriers and these funds being used to overcome some of these barriers,” she said, “like the creation of a year-round shelter in the city, things like the creation of transitional supportive housing, the creation of more affordable housing, the creation of more mental health programs, more jail-based counseling programs, more free counseling referrals for people that are connected to the Justice Mental Health Collaborative, more resources for neighborhoods to be able to overcome some of the nuisance property issues. …

“I want to challenge our city leaders greatly that this is an opportunity to use those funds and not to just put that into our city’s general funds, to not just put that towards the expansion of tourism and law enforcement,” she said. “We have had a poverty rate in this city that has been twice our state’s average for more than 20 years. We have to do something about that. We can no longer continue to accept these narratives and turn the other way with a blind eye or deaf ear. And we have some opportunity right now to create change.”

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald