Smile Politely

TIMES Center looks to future after restoration of state funding

Before coming to the TIMES Center, Sidney Barker was homeless and sleeping under a bridge in Danville, Ill. Once a working member of society for 37 years, Barker feels he can no longer hold a job because of stress and anguish.  Without the TIMES Center, Barker would still be on the street.

“I would be homeless,” Barker said. “I wouldn’t be underneath the bridge where I was at, and of course, I’d be looking for food. Even though I do get food stamps, that’s not adequate enough, and I don’t know if I’d be able to get out and get a job on my own.”

The TIMES Center, established in the 1970s, is a transitional living program for men and is run under the auspices of the nonprofit agency Community Elements in Champaign. The program, which allows 70 men to stay at the center for no more than a year, is designed to help men return to independent living. The center provides a soup kitchen from 12–12:30 p.m. and 6–6:30 p.m. for anyone in the community.

In the state budget that took effect July 1, grant funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity totaling $95,000 was cut from the budget of the TIMES Center, 70 E. Washington St.

Almost eight months later, the TIMES Center has had funding partially restored. In late January, the center was notified that $44,000 would be restored to the Illinois Department of Human Services grant funding. The center is also requesting $75,000 from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“It’s a very difficult issue,” said Sue Wittman, director of adult recovery services at Community Elements. “You’re pinning different agencies and different causes against each other. I really hate that part. I don’t know who lobbied or who did the best job convincing the powers that make these decisions that this should be restored, but it was really good news.”

With a limit of 70 men, the TIMES Center operates on a first-come-first-serve basis, but men can be placed on a waiting list. Residents sleep in a room on mats on the floor, but they can move to higher levels in the program where they may share a room with a roommate and sleep on bunk beds.

The men who come to the center often suffer from mental illness, come from a criminal background or have a history of alcohol and drug abuse. Every man that comes to the center has to have the desire to help himself return to independent living.

“It provides a safety net that helps us take care of those who are homeless who need rehabilitation, and they are somewhat of a risk to others with their situation,” Wittman said. “If these guys get better, they can contribute. That makes our whole city better.”

Every man that comes to the TIMES Center signs into a service plan that includes meeting with various counseling groups, as well as meeting with a recovery advocate once a week to track his progress on the service plan.

All of the men are required to attend a coping skills group, where the skills they learn range from basic financial skills such as how to balance a checkbook and create a budget to how to manage their anger.

Men in the program are either looking for jobs or seeking disability benefits if they have mental illness that hinders their ability to work. Men who acquire jobs are required to save 60 percent of their paycheck, which is returned to them when they leave the TIMES Center. Savings are collected to ensure that men have enough money for a security deposit, first month’s rent, and household necessities when they leave the center.

Gary Schrader has been at the TIMES Center since Sept. 30, and he recognizes that while there may be rules, they are in place for his benefit.

“They’ve helped me a lot,” he said. “They have a bunch of good resources if you just let them offer them to you. There are rules. There are rules everywhere, so it all depends on what you want to do.”

Because of the cuts in funding, the TIMES Center had to shut its doors during the day, opening instead at 5 p.m. After being served breakfast, residents leave the center, most of them using the time to search for jobs or going to work if they have jobs. If enough funding is restored, this could change.

“Our hours of operation would go back up,” Wittman said. “We’ve had to close down our client services for the most part except by appointment from 10 to 5 and we would like to go back and not have that restriction.”

The cuts also led the TIMES Center to cut one staff position and cut another staff member to part-time. The cuts left the center with seven full-time employees and one part-time employee.

Along with the daytime closure, the decrease in employees reduced the amount of time recovery advocates had to work with men because staff members had higher case loads, giving them less time to work individually with each man.

“Our concern was how we were going to adequately help these guys get employment and help them deal with their issues because we would have to reduce staff,” Wittman said.

As a result of the restoration in funding, one employee has been returned from part-time to full-time work, and two part-time positions will be made available.

“We were able to really reassign a lot of jobs to people that they don’t normally do, like our cook helps a lot in ways that she shouldn’t have to, and we’re going to be able to take away those extra responsibilities that would probably burn her out if we don’t,” Wittman said.

The TIMES Center would like to provide more on-site substance abuse treatment for the men, particularly for men who are dual diagnosed with a mental disability and a substance abuse problem. It has written in for a substance abuse counselor for a requested grant. Substance abuse counseling is currently done without any funding. With funding, the center hopes to have one employee devoted to counseling so staff can focus on other duties. 

The center hopes to provide a stipend to graduate students in social work at the University of Illinois for work as interns, and money could also be used for repairs and to enhance equipment, Wittman said.

Funding is renewed on a yearly basis, and applications must be filled out to apply for funding. It is a continual process, and funding is never a guarantee.

“They’re all competitive, and we have outcomes we have to meet,” Wittman said. “We have to show the need and the value to the community both.”

However, even in good times, the center runs at a deficit. The center relies on the help of community members and organizations.

“We always need more volunteers,” said Barb Rumer, recovery advocate at the TIMES Center. “We always need more funds. We always need more donations, whether it be clothing or food, and every little bit helps.”

Residents at the TIMES Center understand where they would be were it not for the center providing them with food and shelter.

“Our families are gone or they’re far away,” Barker said. “We have no place to go. So without the TIMES Center, we’re going to be out in the cold, and I think that will lead to more drug abuse, more alcohol abuse and people might actually commit crimes to go to jail just so they’ll have a place to go.”

Residents at the center want community members to recognize that they are normal people and stereotypes should not keep community members from supporting and helping the TIMES Center.

“We are not just bums on the low trying to get stuff off of the government,” Barker said. “You could do that without being at the TIMES Center. We dress halfway decent. We’re clean. We’re not unshaven. We don’t get drunk and rowdy. We’re not belligerent to other people. You’re just a normal person. You’re just down on the low.”

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