Homeless shelter open in Jacksonville

  • New Directions’ services include access to shower facilities.
  • Director Sarah Robinson stands outside the center, which is located within Grace United Methodist Church.
  • Sarah Robinson, the director of New Directions Warming & Cooling Center stands in the common area at the center. Robinson wants to make sure that people know the homeless shelter is open and that both donations and vaccinated volunteers are appreciated.
  • The women’s sleeping quarters is one area in New Directions shelter.
  • Hallway lockers are available for guests to store their items.

New Directions is located at Grace United Methodist Church

by Lynn Colburn
Photos/Lynn Colburn

New Directions Warming & Cooling Center for the Homeless is located within Grace United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, with its own entrance at 1000 S. Fayette St.

New Directions gives guests a place to stay for evenings, shower, get food, do laundry and sleep. The shelter, unlike other shelters in the state, tries to keep families together in the same facility by accommodating both men and woman in separate areas within its walls. Anything its guests need is covered — such as food, snacks and things for hygiene — which, according to Sarah Robinson, director of New Directions, “allows them to just take that deep breath and focus on something else, rather than those day-to-day worries.”

The age of children that are in New Directions with their families can vary from infants to young children to teenagers. The children who come to live in the shelter are allowed to remain in their current school, allowing them to have as little disruption to their routines and school environments as possible.

Robinson says, “We tell all guests when they come in that they can stay up to 60 days, as long as they are working toward gaining independence. What we have found, since we set that time frame in place, is that a median marker of 45 days is a pretty good marker for when people move out. Sometimes we have to extend beyond the 60 days, like if you have been approved for housing and there just isn’t a unit yet, then that would be something that would be extendable. Or for someone who took a while to get the IDs and has just started working who needs a little more time to get everything in place before they can leave.

“Prior to implementing that 60-day goal, people stayed a lot longer,” Robinson elaborates, “but we have found that since then it is really doable as a time limit that fits in this specific area. It is enough time that they can relax and get comfortable, but not so comfortable that they stop making forward progress.”

The shelter reopened July 1, 2021, and statistics through Dec. 6 show it supplied 666 nights of shelter, which doesn’t include the nights during last part of December. That is about the same amount supplied in 2020 from Jan. 1 through March 17, 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the church and thus the shelter. In comparison for the 12-month year in 2019, New Directions supplied 3,018 nights of shelter in the community.

Robinson explains who is eligible for the shelter and how they are funded, saying, “We don’t restrict anyone for where they are from. We also do not receive any state or federal funding. We’re just donation driven. We receive money from Prairieland United Way and some business sponsors, such Blue Cross Blue Shield which is a large contributor.” Other contributors include church groups and individuals.

“But since our shut down,” continues Robinson, “all our contributors have not returned, and many people don’t even know we are open again. We are always in need of money, checks, supplies and non-perishable goods that are shelf-stable.”

The shelter works with a schedule, explains Robinson. She spells out the schedule by saying, “Once guests are at New Directions, they have to come back every night at 6 p.m., unless I know they are working or something. Procedurally, we have had to change a lot of things to reduce common touch areas. Now staff has to take temperatures when they come in and ask all the COVID questions then chart it on their log. Staff signs each in and out so everyone isn’t touching the same pen and sheet. If anyone wants something out of the refrigerator, like milk or whatever, they have to ask a staff member right now to keep everyone from touching the same surface also. And we are constantly wiping down tables and other things down with Clorox wipes and spray. We use cases of hand sanitizer from the YMCA that was brought there, and they share with United Way agencies. We also received 4,000 paper masks through the Prairieland United Way. And we go through a lot of paper towels and always appreciate donations of those.”

Robinson continues, “In the past, individuals, churches or businesses used to bring buffet-style meals in and serve them to our guests and then stay to interact with us. But we just can’t right now unfortunately! We miss that interaction with the community but need to follow the CDC guidelines.”

New Directions does require all of its staff and volunteers be vaccinated, although the guests don’t have to be and currently most are not. However, guests and staff are all still wearing masks regardless of vaccine status.

“The food is one of the biggest changes. We are picking up our meals up from Pastor Pulley at Spirit of Faith Soup Kitchen,” notes Robinson. “I call her in the afternoon and then I’ll run over and pick up the meals each evening and that way everyone has individually packaged meals.”

Also, because of COVID regulations, New Directions is at 50% capacity. “So, I have five beds in the men’s room and five beds in the women’s room,” explains Robinson. Prior to the pandemic, they had 10 and 10.

Robinson says their hours are shortened at the shelter, “We used to be open on Sundays all day pre-COVID, but we lost donations when we weren’t open, so it is a financial issue right now because I would have to have a staff person here. We will and do stay open on extreme weather days if we can — both extreme heat and cold — and I’m really hopeful we will be open regularly on Sundays again soon. Sundays are a hard day for our guests because they don’t have their regular places they can go. They don’t have job interviews or appointments on Sundays and the library is open for limited hours, so there isn’t really anywhere for them to go.”

To best make use of her staff, Robinson schedules two shifts at the shelter. “Aids come in at 5:30 p.m. and our door opens at 6 p.m. That gives the aids time to get the meals warmed and set up … and if we have house laundry, like bedding and stuff, it gives them time to run down and get that started. Then the doors open at 6 p.m. That person who opens stays until 11:30 p.m. and then at 11:30 p.m., the second shift comes in and stays until 7:30 a.m. In addition, from 6-9 p.m., a second shelter aid comes in because an aid needs to always accompany shelter residents to the showers and laundry areas and if we didn’t have the second person all the residents would have to go to the showers at once which wouldn’t be efficient or practical.”

Robinson notes that “I am so blessed to have staff that truly love what they do and I am so grateful for them.”

Residents do have a chore list that they must finish. There are chores, for example, such as vacuuming the hallway, cleaning the bathroom, cleaning the showers, cleaning the floors and cleaning the tables. Currently, the dishes are minimal because with COVID-19, the shelter uses disposable containers and plasticware. “Hopefully, when CDC changes guidelines again, we can add back washing dishes on the list and save money on buying so many disposable items again,” said Robinson, who managed to get dishes donated to save on money when she began at New Directions prior to COVID.

They also like to have fresh air in the facility much they can, weather permitting.

“Our service is to give a safe place to stay and some case management,” Robinson notes emphasizing the shelter’s mission, “to make sure they know what’s out there, so those agencies can take over from there. Jacksonville is so fortunate because we have so many services that I didn’t even know we had and I’ve lived here all my life. Prairieland United Way has the monthly meetings with agency directors which keeps us up to date on what everyone is doing. I just think … Wow! … this is amazing there is this much help here. But if people don’t know where it is, they can’t use it!”

Robinson does the case management with everyone and sits down with each guest and learns the person’s story and what they need. “We set three goals for the week, and during a formal case management session we find out if they have accomplished those goals or find out why not. We ask what else do you need to accomplish it if you haven’t. Then we move on to the next steps. We try to keep it all realistic and it can give them each a real sense of accomplishment! And everybody’s goals are different, no two have been alike since I’ve been here.”

Every New Directions guest comes in needing something different for their circumstances. In other words, everyone comes in with a different starting point. Someone might need to get identification which puts them back at step one. “To get a replacement ID right now, you can’t go in person to the Social Security office to request a replacement card,” says Robinson, “it all still has to be done through the mail, so it makes it an extremely slow process. If you need to request a birth certificate, it also takes a little bit of money, so we again we partner with a group at Our Saviour’s who has been helpful with securing the proper ID documents for our people. It is only once people have their legal identification in hand that they can then start job searches or apply for public housing and those types of things. So, it is a step-by-step process that we help them navigate by putting them in touch with the correct agencies and groups.”

Overall things seem to be going well at New Directions. They have had several people who have moved out successfully, which Robinson calls “helpful and hopeful.”

In addition, Robinson says, “We are working well with other agencies. I will send an email to the Jacksonville area landlord association and let them know that them know I’ve got someone looking for a two-bedroom and this is what they can pay. We also direct them to Morgan County Housing Authority. I can provide a letter from here which qualifies them as homeless. Just making sure our guests know where to go and giving them those tools is helpful for them. We also reach out to Healthy Jacksonville and a case manager will come and meet with our guests who need some services that they can help with. I can provide a list of substance abuse meetings or get guest Gateway information to help coordinate any of those things. For job searches, we work with Reynolds to try to get folks working with them. We also work with the temporary agencies to get them some job history for guests which help them qualify for more permanent jobs.

“Right now, I have a gentleman now from out of state who is working and everything, not full-time yet, and needs a medical card,” Robinson adds to explain all the challenges they might face. “Well, he has an out-of-state medical card, but it doesn’t help here, it needs to be switched over, so we are helping him navigate which agencies he needs to contact to get that done.

“A couple of good things happened out of COVID,” says Robinson positively, “a wonderful group stepped up and covered our absence when we had to close and now that we are open, we are trying to shoulder that need again. The United Way also started its Helpline, so anyone could call one number and get information about the resources in the area that could help in many different situations and it still remains open today. So, that was a wonderful service that came from COVID!”

The Prairieland United Way Helpline, 217-479-1818, can help people connected to the resources they need in finding food, paying housing bills, accessing childcare, or other essential services.

“One of my favorite times at New Directions is just sitting and joking around with people at night and making it more of a family inside,” smiles Robinson. She continues, “We feel like this is more like a program and a commitment to the individuals to move forward than some of the places that are just a place to sleep and leave. We provide the tools that help them help themselves. We make those true connections with the people who are here!”

New Directions needs your help now more than ever, especially during this is the time of year when donations tend to slow down. New Directions relies on the generous donations from individuals, churches, businesses and the Prairieland United Way to fund its program. Robinson says, “It costs approximately $220 per day to operate the shelter. And we would love it if any individuals, churches or businesses in the area would consider sponsoring a day at New Directions — or a half day. Donations in any amount are always accepted and appreciated!”

In addition, New Directions needs adult volunteers from 6-9 p.m. Volunteers help to reduce operating expenses and allow the guests better service. If you are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, please email or call for more information at newdirections62650@gmail.com or 217-271-1014.

Robinson thanks all for their past support and looks forward to partnering with the area in continue this journey of service to those who need it.

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