By Sarah Jesmer
ROCKFORD — The coroner’s office says nearly 3,000 people in Winnebago County died within the last year. 45 of them were part of the area’s homeless population. That’s according to Carpenter’s Place, a non-profit homeless shelter in Rockford.
A small wood-panelled room tucked away inside Carpenter’s Place overflowed with people last week. The crowd was mourning for the homeless people in the community who passed in 2018. Some who were remembered were recently housed but were still receiving services from local agencies.
“Anybody that’s there, it just kind of helps you sit back and look and think we can do better,” said Kay Larrick, the executive director of Carpenter’s Place. She said organizers wanted to make sure everyone was remembered.
Larrick said the number of homeless people who died is similar to previous years. By comparison, the Stephenson County and DeKalb County coroner’s office said they’ve seen zero homeless people pass within the last year. Larrick said the vigil was intended to unify Rockford.
“We think that’s really a wonderful opportunity because really all things that are done at the Carpenter’s Place are really done as a result of the community,” she said.
Markus Stone attended the vigil on the rainy December morning. He said he’s been homeless in the past, and Carpenter’s Place has been part of his life for the past 18 months. He said he knew a few people who were remembered.
“[This memorial] just wakes you up,” Stone said. “You never know when it’s your time.”
Stone said the people who needed to hear messages of hope shared at the vigil either didn’t attend or couldn’t fit in the crowded memorial room.
Carpenter’s Place is part of a citywide effort working to help those in need. Friends, family and many social workers attended the vigil. Angie Walker from the city’s Community Action Agency was there.
“When these people pass away, oftentimes there’s nobody to do anything for them. And they’re people just like anybody else so they deserve to be remembered,” said Walker.
Service providers like Walker are part an initiative that earned Rockford national attention for the way they’ve tried to reduce homelessness. In 2015, a program called Built for Zero began in Rockford. Walker said it changed the way agencies organized together to advocate for those looking for help.
“We have a single point of entry which is our office here where anybody experiencing homeless can come to one place, they come here,” said Walker.
People are placed on a list ordered by urgency. For example, a chronically homeless veteran can be given housing quicker than a non-veteran single adult because varying urgencies are assigned to different populations. Jennifer Jaeger is the Community Services Director for the City of Rockford. She works with Walker at the agency.
“It’s completely data driven. Everything we do in homelessness is completely data driven,” said Jaeger.
Rockford was one of the very first communities in the U.S. to reach a “functional zero” for homeless veterans and chronically homeless people. That means the list of veterans needing housing can’t be longer than eight people at one time, and the list of chronically homeless people can’t be longer than three people. No one is supposed to stay on either list for more than thirty days. Walker said it’s nearly impossible to fake a functional zero certification because the confirmation process is so extensive.
“It is not easy to get the certification. I think when we did the chronically homeless, I think it was easier to house the people than it was to do to paperwork to get confirmed,” said Walker.
Sustainability for those who’ve been housed is addressed by the agency through personalized care and multi agency impact groups. Jaeger said steps like getting a job or improving mental health can only happen once someone is safely housed.
“How do you go from being on the street to looking presentable for employment, for transportation, the whole bit. Once you’re housed, a lot of those barriers go away,” said Jaeger. She went on to say the city is still recovering from the severe economic downturn of the 1980s.
“In addition to that, quite honestly Rockford has an ungodly high eviction rate. We’re 51 in the nation for rate of evictions which is horrible. We’ve got neighborhoods where 1 in 5 households get evicted annually,” said Jaeger.
The faith-based Rockford Rescue Mission is part of the effort to aid struggling community members. The mission said it has the most emergency and temporary beds available in the city.
Greg Cooney, the programs director at the Mission, attended the vigil. “Many of the pictures that scrolled across the screen and names that were read are people that have stayed in our shelter,” said Cooney.
He said a majority of women coming to the mission are domestic abuse survivors. Most of the men, he said, struggle with addiction. He said mental health problems are also a recurring issue.
“Anyone driving down the streets in Rockford can see there’s still a need,” said Cooney. “If individuals come across someone in need like that, tell them to come to us.”
Walker says there’s a uniquely strong network in Rockford working to help struggling locals. She said Rockford is seen as as a model for social workers nationwide for its community aid. She notes those who live in the city aren’t convinced that a functional zero has actually been achieved for veterans or the chronically homeless.
“We don’t have that many people on the streets anymore. And if they’re out there, they’re hidden well,” said Walker.
Built For Zero is a national organization. Recently they gave Rockford a goal of reaching functionally zero homeless people in all populations by 2020.
“I mean it’s very flattering but it’s terrifying,” said Walker. She said the city has an intimidating amount of hard work still to do.
Greg Cooney at the Rescue Mission said he hopes sustainability is a key consideration when working to achieve this 2020 goal. Jaeger said all hands on deck would be appreciated:
“Our community itself really would like there to be no or few homeless people. We certainly hear that from all sides of the community. I would ask, I would hope, that all sides of the community start working with us to address the problem.”