Last year, I talked with Melany Jackson, the Executive Director of C-U at Home, about their third annual event and fundraiser, One Winter Night. The main goal of last year’s event was to raise money for a daytime drop-in center in Champaign. Since July, this drop-in center — The Phoenix — has been up and running, offering a place where people without homes in Champaign-Urbana can stop by for essential services and creative expression.
When I stopped by The Phoenix last week, there was a pleasant buzz from the roughly fifteen people making use of the space. Two adults sat hunched over an internet-equipped computer, occasionally pushing the toddler who waited in a stroller behind them. A teenager quietly strummed some chords on a guitar in the corner while a group of four men chatted and laughed at a nearby table. Behind the counter, a woman had her hair trimmed.
“This is the first day we’re offering hair cuts,” said Jackson. “And that’s been very popular so far. We have a waiting list going.”
The atmosphere was relaxed and casual, and plenty of essential services were in sight.
“There are four computers with internet available,” Jackson pointed out. “A lot of folks are using them for job searches because with so many jobs you have to apply online now. We have people to help the folks who come in navigate websites and use email. Social media is also available. We have lots of tables and chairs, and there’s always a card game going. Usually a chess game too. We have a piano and two guitars, one electric and one acoustic. We have a library area with a comfortable couch. We have a refrigerator, microwave, and phone for the public to use. And if folks don’t have an address they can get their mail here. We also have a corner with a lot of art supplies, for drawing and painting. And a foosball table.”
Currently, people can stop by The Phoenix three afternoons a week, but Jackson said that they’re hoping to expand the center’s availability in the coming months. Recently, various churches from the community have committed to staffing one afternoon a week with a greeter (who signs people in as they arrive), a computer assistant, and a floor person, who makes conversation and answers questions for the visitors.
“The purpose behind developing The Phoenix is to be a low threshold place for people to come,” said Jackson. “There aren’t a lot of requirements or expectations or rules. Over time, our goal is to break down some walls and build relationships with people. And we’ve already seen that happen. We’ve only been open six months, but we’ve seen folks trust us more and even reach out for tangible help, for relief from addiction, for services, or even for housing.”
According to Jackson, the mission of C-U at Home is “to engage and mobilize the community to house and support the most vulnerable homeless on their journey of healing and restoration.”
“We do that in a variety of ways,” said Jackson. “We have a four-pronged approach in how we’re helping folks on the street.” In addition to the new daytime drop-in center, C-U at Home has also begun running two houses, a recovery house for four men as well as a family house, in the past year.
“That situation is designed for folks with some form of income, and they bank half of that for when they get out of the program,” said Jackson. “We ask that the folks who stay in these homes commit to six months, but they can stay for twelve months. It’s exciting to watch that develop because there are very few halfway houses or recovery houses in our community.”
The other approach is C-U at Home’s “street ministry,” which has led to a component of assistance: transportation. “The detox in Champaign County closed almost six years ago,” said Jackson. “So folks wanting to take the first step away from addiction have to drive somewhere else in the state. If they don’t have a drivers license, car, or even state ID, that can be really difficult. So we help them find a detox bed somewhere else in the state, and we offer transportation to that place. That’s a type of assistance that no one else in the community is really doing.”
Jackson said that C-U at Home attempts to fill some of the gaps in resources for people without homes in Champaign County.
“Two very large gaps in our community for people who have no place to live are a places for people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and places for people who have been banned or timed out from places in our community. They often have nowhere to go. And another key demographic are families and people with children. There are very few resources for families to stay intact. The United Way is developing a space that will have nine rooms for families to stay in, and that will open sometime next year. That will be great, but it will be a drop in the bucket.”
In the meantime, The Phoenix is stepping in. “We were lucky to find this space,” said Jackson. “We had exhausted all our initial options. But then we connected with a commercial relator, and he found out about this place before it officially went on the market. We looked at immediately. So many things were perfect about it. The open architecture. Restrooms that are ADA compliant. Its ideal location—I’m looking at Illinois Terminal right now from the window. The soup kitchen is just around the corner. Once we looked at the place, we had to lease very quickly. It took about a month and a half of rehab work.”
This year’s One Winter Night, which will take place on February 6th, will raise money to support The Phoenix as well as C-U at Home’s other work. “The goal for this year’s One Winter Night is $100,000,” said Jackson. “We are paying full commercial rent for The Phoenix, and we also hired our first full-time employee this summer. So our expenses tripled.” The money they raise from the event is crucial, said Jackson, for C-U at Home’s programs: “We raise about 80% of our annual budget from One Winter Night.”
Until February, C-U at Home will continue and expand the offerings at The Phoenix, a space that was vacant for one year before they began renting it and, for ten years before that, was a bar called The Phoenix. “We decided to keep the name,” said Jackson. “We like the symbol of the bird rising out of the ashes.”