On a bench outside the First United Methodist Church, John Hammond, 52, sits clutching a black lighter and a slowly burning cigarette. Across the street, people mingle at the bus stop, their hands shoved into pockets, their faces downturned against the cutting November wind. An empty Styrofoam cup drifts down the sidewalk, colliding with the skittering leaves left over from fall.
The sound of buses makes the otherwise quiet street sound monstrous. Groans of engines and the screech of brakes echo against the stone face of the church. Women in business suits pass by, walking quickly and avoiding eye contact. Men in shaggy coats nod and say hello.
Hammond's bright blue eyes see it all from below the brim of his red and white baseball cap. "I worked all my life," he says. "My background is psychology and business management from IU, with 25 years' management experience. You wouldn't expect to find somebody like me down here. But it can happen to anybody."
Hammond is a part of a growing number of homeless in Bloomington. With the onset of winter, many will find it more difficult to attain services, as needs increase. While agencies work to meet this increased need, some of their clients argue there is more fundamental work to be done.
"There's no hope," says Hammond. "That's the big problem. If you take away hope you might as well kill somebody. Take away their self-esteem and their illusions, dreams if you will, and they really don't have anything to live for."
Increasing numbers is cause for worry
The increase in homeless in Bloomington has put a strain on the various services that seek to help those on the street. Shalom Community Center staff have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of clients they provide meals for. Those responsible for the Emergency Interfaith Winter Shelter fear that high numbers could leave people out in the cold.
"There's no hope. That's the big problem. If you take away hope you might as well kill somebody." - John Hammond, homeless Bloomington man
"One of the concerns we all have is, 'Are we going to be able to handle the numbers this winter?'" says Trinity Episcopal Church Associate Rector Victoria B. Hall. Trinity spearheaded the Emergency Winter Shelter last year. "Each of the sites is set up for 35 people. If we get more than that, we're not sure what we're going to do. It's quite likely in the dead of winter we could have our numbers go up. But it's been warm so far, so we just don't know."
Interfaith Winter Shelter, which began last year as a project by Trinity, has expanded to include 24 other sponsors, according to the Interfaith Winter Shelter Web site. The shelter offers a place to sleep during the cold winter months, rotating its location between several host locations.
Shalom partners with the Interfaith shelter, providing staff that stay through the night. Shalom Community Center Director of Programs Mary Andrus-Overley says the effort is making a positive impact.
"There are some people who camp out year-round," she says, "but others who are sleeping here and there outdoors really want, and need, to be indoors in the worst winter months. So the Interfaith effort is addressing that need."
Low-barrier shelters 'not the final solution'
Many of the shelters in Bloomington require certain conditions be met that can have positive and negative effects.
"Others who are sleeping here and there outdoors really want, and need, to be indoors in the worst winter months." - Mary Andrus-Overley, Shalom Community Cente
"Backstreet Missions has religious programming that people must participate in," says Overley. "Martha's House has a requirement that people participate in developing, and carrying out, a plan with a case manager to address their needs. And some people are just not there yet, not ready to start planning and working toward a change in their circumstances."
Unlike the other facilities in Bloomington, the Interfaith shelter is low-barrier and does not require guests to be sober or participate in programs to receive aid.
"These are the people that can't get into other places," says Hall. "We're dealing with a really at-risk population that has a hard time surviving from day to day, and they're not able to make a commitment to a program. They just don't have the wherewithal [because] they're dealing so much with survival issues."
While Hall believes in the necessity of the low-barrier shelter, she also realizes it's not the last stop for many experiencing homelessness.
"They may just not be able to do any more at this point," she says. "But giving them a safe place to stay, sleep, that they're out of the cold is a start. It's not the end. It's not the final solution."
'Room for improvement'
Even when need is great, Bloomington still manages to provide services to those in need.
"There's a lot of services that are offered," says Hammond. "Shalom Center is a lifesaver. I'd be dead if it wasn't for this place, seriously. They're making an attempt to offer the services to make it a little bit easier for people."
"Its quite likely in the dead of winter we could have our numbers go up." - Victoria B. Hall, Trinity Episcopal Church Associate Rector
Shalom is in the midst of restructuring its staff to compensate for rising numbers and expand services.
"At the end of next month my job will be abolished," says Overley. "The funds used for my salary can be used instead to fund two new part-time positions."
Shalom is also working to find a new home for the services it provides, a project that has been under way for three years but is becoming a main priority this year, according to Overley. The center is looking for a space with ample square footage to house offices, a commercial-sized kitchen and dining room and many of the other services Shalom provides in different locations.
"Servicewise, I'd give this town an 'A+' even though there's room for improvement," says Hammond. "The first place I would start is with the shelters."
Hammond suggests that a shelter that provides work would help to solve many problems.
"That's going to build confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, belonging," he says. "Those things are necessary to be successful in life. You need to take someone who falls into homelessness, for whatever reason, and rebuild them. If someone doesn't have hope and sees no future, they give up, they really do. You've got to provide the support."
Kate Ripley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.