Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures for the Connecting Grounds’ proposed development for two campuses containing residential buildings and community center developments, known as Roots of Community.
One of Springfield’s top advocates for the homeless caught the attention and the ears of the Springfield City Council, leaving the elected officials with some data and thinking to do.
The council took its weekly Tuesday lunch meeting out onto West Chestnut Expressway to the Connecting Grounds, a church that has been serving Springfield’s unsheltered community since 2018. There, Pastor Christie Love introduced them to real people affected by homelessness, along with facts and figures for homelessness in Springfield, and some thoughts on how to reduce the population of people living on streets, in abandoned cars and in encampments.
“I am a big believer in affirming what we have that’s working well in our community, and we have a lot of good programs in the city of Springfield,” Love said. “We have a lot of good resources. The problem is we don’t have enough resources and those resources don’t have enough capacity.”
The staff of the Connecting Groups, a church with a major outreach effort toward the unsheltered residents of Springfield, hosted the Springfield City Council for an informational session on homelessness in Springfield, combined with a proposal to get people off the streets and into housing.
Most of Springfield’s homeless outreach organizations report that they are at capacity for bed space. The presentation was as full of figures and statistics as it was with firsthand stories and emotional descriptions of homelessness.
“A lot of things come to mind,” Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said when the presentations concluded. “No problem is an island.”
What the mayor meant is that tackling a single issue, like wage gaps or mental health care, won’t be the single hand up that Springfield’s unsheltered population needs to find long-term housing.
“We talked about so many larger issues,” McClure said. “We talked about homelessness, we talked about about domestic violence, about substance abuse, about poverty, about mental health. All of those, to me, fit in together. If you can start dealing with one of them, that hopefully leads to others and results in, hopefully, some longer-term solutions.”
Homelessness is seldom the single issue that an unsheltered person in Springfield faces. Often, they also deal with a combination of pressures like extreme poverty, unemployment, substance misuse or addiction, legal issues, medical setbacks, mental health issues, domestic violence, family separations and issues of child custody.
Love’s goal for the presentations was to give members of the city council a perspective on homelessness and poverty that they had maybe not seen before.
How to count unsheltered people
The point-in-time count is a yearly census of people experiencing homelessness performed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is used to collect and preserve historical data on homelessness across the United States and is performed once per year. On Jan. 27, 2021, the point-in-time count for Springfield resulted in a count of 583 homeless persons, according to a report by the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness.
Love pointed to a different set of data from the HUD data, a unique-to-Springfield survey that she calls the “street census,” a collaboration among Springfield’s homeless outreach organizations that attempts to count Springfield’s unsheltered population on a weekly basis. As of 12:05 a.m. on March 28, the street census was 1,139 people. People are added to the list as they access services, and go off the list if they get into housing, move away from Springfield or die.
“Unfortunately, I take more people off the list because they move or they pass away than they get into housing right now, and that’s a really hard reality of our community,” Love said. “But we are able to also, in live time, tell where they stay.”
The census can account for people staying in shelters, sleeping on the streets, camping, staying in a hotel, staying in a rehabilitation facility or staying the night with a friend or family member.
Love believes the actual number of unsheltered persons in Springfield is about twice as high as the street census would indicate.
“I believe that because I think we have at least 500-600 people that are doubled up, which means they’re staying with friends and family. They are who we call ‘the invisible homeless,’ they are the people who typically don’t ask for help,” Love said.
Love said families and single parents are less likely to ask for help than single homeless persons or couples, because homeless parents are usually afraid that by seeking services, they risk losing legal custody of their child or children.
Additionally, people sleeping in their cars on any given night tend to go undetected.
“Sometimes, they’re just very good at finding places to pull in, to fly under the radar and to pop back out,” Love said.
Data-driven examination of homelessness
“I know that there is kind of a rumor that gets circulated a lot that says people come to Springfield to be homeless because we have all of these amazing services, and so we wanted to see if that was really true,” Love said.
Connecting Grounds staff members interviewed 145 unsheltered persons in Springfield in the summer of 2021. A key finding was that 60 percent of those people had lived in Springfield for at least 10 years.
“They were people who grew up here. They were people who had called Springfield home for a long time, and of that number, a very small amount of them are actually engaging in panhandling,” Love said.
More than half of the 35 people who said they panhandled reported that they made less than $40 per day.
Love also showed the Springfield City Council a measuring tool called ACEs, adverse childhood experiences.
“It’s a look at trauma and how trauma intersects with poverty and homelessness, and the impact it’s having right here in our community,” Love said. “Because we hear these numbers nationally, but I wanted to measure what they actually were looking like in Springfield.”
ACE scores are measured on a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing an unbelievable level of difficult conditions during a person’s childhood. An ACE score climbs upward for each difficultly that is present in a person’s early life, including poverty, physical abuse, witnessing a parent get arrested, drug use in the home and sexual abuse.
Connecting Grounds staff members interviewed 204 unsheltered persons in the span of a year, and assigned an average ACE score of 5.3.
“An ACE score of 4 or more puts you at incredibly higher risk for drug use, alcohol use, incarceration; it puts you at higher risk to be a domestic violence perpetrator and victim,” Love said. “I really think if we could be more trauma-informed with the way we interact with individuals who have been highly traumatized as kids, who are also living in a lot of trauma right now, it could really change the ballgame in our community.”
Connecting Grounds’ proposal: Roots of Community
Love also gave the city council some insight on the Connecting Grounds’ proposal, Roots of Community. The main premise is to get people off the streets.
According to the Connecting Grounds, one adult living without shelter costs the Springfield Community about $30,597 per year in policing, cleanup costs, municipal court fees and medical expenses. Indirect costs like lost work time or loss of business are not included in this calculation. With 1,100 adults on the street, Springfield’s annual cost of homelessness is estimated at $33.7 million per year, using this calculation.
The Connecting Grounds seeks about $21 million in public and private funding to build two outreach centers. One would be specifically geared toward families, offering 27 housing units where a family of four could be housed at a cost of less than $16,000 per year. Another campus would be for adults only, and would be capable of housing up to 72 persons after the first phase of development.
The second phase of the project would be to add buildings to the two campuses, adding beds for 72 persons per campus. The shelters would include daycare for working parents, assistance with education, financial and documentation needs, counseling and therapy services, legal resources, transportation networking, job skills training, advocacy, opportunities to volunteer and do community service and more resources for unsheltered persons needing to rebuild their lives.
Love said the projects would not end homelessness in Springfield, but they would save the city more than $2 million per year and help hundreds of unsheltered persons. She is hopeful that the Springfield City Council and/or the Greene County Commission may be able to allocate funds for the projects.
Eight city council members and the mayor were invited to tour some of the Connecting Grounds facilities on West Chestnut Expressway at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. McClure said he would study the proposals that Love provided, and look for ways that the Springfield city government could collaborate with homeless outreach groups.