Smile Politely

Keeping Up with the TIMES

“My background is in feminist activism, so I really don’t know how I showed up here.” It’s a Monday morning, and Jason Greenly (pictured above) is talking about the road that led him to his supervisory position at TIMES Center, the Champaign shelter for homeless men.

Greenly’s roots in social services actually began at the University of Illinois, where he majored in Sociology and minored in Women’s Studies. “One semester I didn’t run cross country because I was injured, and I found myself doing sexual assault prevention work,” he recalls. “I began working for domestic violence shelters as a volunteer, and I started doing the crisis line at the Mental Health Center.”

His work for the crisis line led to an eight-year stint as a resident instructor at one of the Mental Health Center of Champaign County’s group homes, then eventually to TIMES Center, which opened in 2000. TIMES Center began as a grass roots organization run by volunteers, many of whom were affiliated with local churches. In time, it was picked up as a program by the Mental Health Center. Today, its stated mission is “to provide homeless men the opportunity to empower themselves to move toward self-sufficiency and independent living.”

According to Greenly, the major causes of homelessness for men are substance abuse, mental illness — especially undiagnosed — and felony convictions. “There are no great secrets to homelessness,” he says.

The center seeks to fully reintegrate its residents into society, rather than merely provide a short-term fix. TIMES Center offers a variety of services, including case management, various classes and support groups, meals, washers and dryers and some health services. In return, residents agree to follow rules and regulations designed to help them recover while being respectful toward others.

In theory, men can stay at the shelter for up to a year, but most exit far before that deadline. Once the intake process is complete and a resident’s needs for food and shelter have been addressed, the center’s recovery team concentrates on finding employment for its residents.

“There are 70 guys here; work presents itself,” says Greenly. He manages and assists a staff of recovery advocates, case managers and a cook. His duties range in nature from micro to macro: At any given time, he may be resolving a dispute about a missing wallet, conferring with an outside social worker, helping a community member who is dropping off a clothing donation, coordinating a resident intake, or explaining to a resident the center’s policy on distributing bus tokens.

Greenly’s level of involvement with residents is more hands off than his previous group home work. “And that’s fine,” he says. “I’ve come to realize that while I’m good with clients, I’m better at middle management. I just don’t wear ties well,” states the supervisor, habitually clad in jeans.

When questioned about stressful or scary situations he’s experienced at the shelter, Greenly responds, “I’m not going to say that every day has been sunshine and rainbows, but any job you have where you don’t dread going in, that’s a job you want to keep.” Greenly sees a positive attitude as a job requirement. “I don’t perceive things in negative ways,” he says. “I see the fires that erupt as opportunities. That’s an attitude I have to adapt for working in an environment like this.”

Surrounded by the harsh realities his clients face, Greenly seeks solace away from the job in literature, especially Star Trek paperbacks. “I tell people that it’s my personal escape. Part of it is that the Star Trek universe takes it as understood that in the future humanity pulls its act together. There is no hunger, there is no war, there is no poverty. I spend a fair amount of time in that world. I’ll get frustrated and depressed and after fifteen minutes of [reading] I’m good.”

In his line of work, Greenly sees the idea of a utopian future as a comfort. “I have to maintain the belief that such a world is possible. … I don’t know how to do it, but I have to maintain that belief.”

Back here on Earth, it seems that Greenly and the staff of TIMES Center are making their own daily contributions towards Gene Roddenberry’s vision.


“I believe that we are social creatures, and we cannot really accomplish much without the support and assistance of others. Tony’s travels here reinforced this for me, and demonstrated to many people that what you put into the universe is what it [gives] back,” says Greenly, elaborating on a former TIMES Center resident. “As long as someone wants to make a commitment to honesty, sobriety and responsibility — qualities Tony has in spades — TIMES Center can provide the support and assistance needed to make our services unnecessary.”

In the summer of 2006, Tony was 43 years old, unemployed and homeless. He had been abusing crack cocaine for several years, and alcohol even longer. Two days after Independence Day that summer, he decided to attempt to repair his ruined life. The Rantoul native checked into TIMES Center with nothing to his name but a backpack and a single change of clothes.

Today, Tony’s life is indeed repaired. He works at a local grocery store and lives in his own apartment in Urbana. He has been sober for more than two years, thanks in part to a wide support network. He has even fixed his front teeth, which had been missing upon his entrance at TIMES Center.

Tony credits the center for his successful transition. “I used the program pretty much the way they set it up,” he says.

Like many residents, Tony (pictured above) faced a huge roadblock to a stable life outside the center: permanent employment. With a string of alcohol-related convictions — some felonies for, among other things, drunken brawling — Tony faced a challenge from employers that were reluctant to take a chance on him.

“Even though all my crimes were all drinking related, and I don’t drink anymore, they didn’t care,” he recalls. “I would get up every day and look for work. It was like a job, looking for work.”

The staff at TIMES Center helped Tony by encouraging him. “My recovery advocate told me, ‘There’s people worse off than you, and they make it.’ ”

Finally, one employer gave him the benefit of the doubt. The center then provided Tony with the contact number of his current landlord, who pays Tony to do custodial work on the premises.

According to Tony, some shelters do everything they can to get you out the door as soon as possible, without taking the time to address the larger underlying issues, such as substance abuse recovery. TIMES Center, by contrast, helped him change his entire personality, in his own words. “They gave me time to work on myself,” he says.

An extended stay at TIMES Center also gave Tony the chance to save up some money. But, perhaps most importantly, it offered him a sense of belonging that brought him through the early days of his sobriety and a frustrating job search. During his stay at TIMES Center, he would tell people, “ ‘homeless’ is living under a bridge; I live here.”

TIMES Center is located at 70 East Washington Street, Champaign, Ill. To volunteer, access its services or make a contribution, call (217) 398-7785.

Jason Greenly photo by Cody Bralts. Photo of Tony by Doug Hoepker.

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