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Brenda Johnson, executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield, stands outside the organization’s shelter at 200 S. 11th St.
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Help for the homeless
Brenda Johnson leads an effort that began 20 years ago with a concerned group of citizens
By Carol Sponagle

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and growing poverty rates are largely responsible for a rise in homelessness over the last 25 years.

More than 12 percent of the U.S. population currently lives in poverty. Living on the streets is often caused by limited resources, eroding job opportunities and negative circumstances that can include job loss, illness or an accident. 

Homelessness is a reality for many Americans, and it's a problem that Springfield's residents have seen firsthand on a daily basis for many years - near centers of tourism, health care and places where state and local laws are made.

Twenty years ago, a concerned group of Springfield residents decided to tackle the problem. They came together with local service providers and the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association to provide shelter, support and tools for independence to the homeless in Springfield. By December 1989, Helping Hands Homeless Shelter opened its doors in a building near the former YWCA, giving shelter to nine people on its very first night.

But in 1991, the shelter had already outgrown its location on East Monroe Street. The city of Springfield and Contact Ministries intervened with a joint fundraising effort that resulted in Helping Hands' current location at 200 S. 11th St., alongside the Contact Ministries office.

Brenda Johnson, Helping Hands executive director since 2005, says, "We outgrew the building 10 years ago, and now we're seeking a new location. The needs of our clients have grown - we are a much more personalized, service-intensive agency now. Space is inadequate for the services we're trying to provide."

In just a tiny shelter space and a small administrative office at 11th and Clay streets, Helping Hands offers more than just a Band-Aid for homelessness.

The agency offers emergency shelter and food for adults (18 years and older) and provides clients rehabilitative services such as mental-health services, substance-abuse counseling, employment assistance, access to health services and more. The aim of this agency has been constant since its inception: independent living.

Helping Hands also offers a program funded by the city called Rapid Re-Housing. It provides apartments for people who have been homeless for just a short period of time - mainly people who have fallen on hard times.

Additionally, permanent supportive housing, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is available for chronically homeless individuals through Helping Hands. The program focuses on providing housing and services to help people re-mold habits toward self-sufficiency. 

Johnson says, "They're able to receive mental health and/or drug and alcohol counseling, money management training and health education. If they want to leave our apartments, they have the tools to go out and stay in the community independently."

In order to continue to fulfill the mission of the organization by expanding on its services, more space is needed, Johnson says.

"We've spent about 10 years working with the city of Springfield, local architects and local real estate agents looking for options. It wasn't feasible in the past, and we need to find the right fit to be within the geographic network where our clients receive services."

Johnson says Helping Hands receives funding from the city as well as the state and federal governments, but as essential services continue to be trimmed from government budgets, the program suffers. 

"Without the assistance of Springfield residents and the business community, we can't provide services," she says.

"We need individuals in the community to serve on the board and get involved. We're looking for businesses to partner with us to fulfill our mission. Monetary donations are huge for us - we stretch every dollar we receive."

This organization came about because people were concerned about homelessness, Johnson says. She stresses the need for continued community involvement to promote independence and reduce homelessness.

"We are truly Springfield's own agency," she says, with high hopes for a program that can provide the services necessary to help those in need.



The Mission
Helping Hands is a non-profit organization whose mission is "... to shelter the homeless, provide support, promote independence and work with others in the prevention of homelessness in the community."

The shelter is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Helping Hands provides clients with food, shelter, emergency assistance, rehabilitative programs, case management, employment, housing and life-skills training.



Ways to Help
Helping Hands needs members of the community to serve on the board of directors. Community groups are welcome to provide meals (for 35) and supplies. Disposable items are essential due to lack of space. The shelter is always in need of disposable plates and cups, napkins, bathroom tissue, paper towels, tissues, coffee, sugar and coffee creamer.

To give, contact Helping Hands at 200 S. 11th St., Springfield, IL 62703 (217-522-0048).



Brenda Johnson holds a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Springfield and a master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Her experience with the Springfield homeless population began in the late 1990s, when she took a job with the Youth Service Bureau as the transitional living case manager for homeless teens. She has worked with homeless/at risk adults as liaison at Lincoln Land Community College and as the supervisor of Catholic Charities Crisis Assistance Office. 

For the past five years, Johnson has served as co-chairman for the Heartland Continuum of Care, and for four years as committee chairman for the Homeless Prevention Committee of the Continuum. She has been the executive director for Helping Hands of Springfield since November 2005.



Causes of homelessness
From the National Coalition for the Homeless


  • Eroding work opportunities
  • Decline in public assistance
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of affordable health care
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness
  • Addiction disorders



Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )

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