News Local/State

Businesses Learn How They Can Better Help Homeless In C-U

Jeff Thomas (Left) and Nick Wright (Right) come in from the cold to sleep at the Phoenix in 2015.

Jeff Thomas (Left) and Nick Wright (Right) come in from the cold to sleep at the Phoenix, a day-time drop-in center in Champaign, in 2015. Tiffany Jolley/Illinois Public Media (File photo)

What can businesses do to help those who are homeless in the community? That was one of the questions covered at a panel discussion hosted on Wednesday by the Champaign Center Partnership, a local business group.

A common theme from the front of the room was: The most important thing is to show people you encounter on the street that you care.

“They want to be able to feel like they’re a member of society,” said Rob Dalhaus III, executive director of CU at Home, a nonprofit that provides services to people who are homeless. “And for whatever reason they’re in the position they’re in, they’re still craving that, they’re still wanting those conversations. They’re still wanting to feel like they have some self-worth and have some self-dignity.”

The questions guiding the panel discussion came from a survey of the members of the Champaign Center Partnership, said Genevieve Kirk, executive director of the partnership and moderator of Wednesday’s panel. Questions were also taken from the audience.

Monica Cherry with the substance abuse treatment provider Rosecrance, was among the other panelists. She encouraged local business owners to get involved in their communities and become aware of the resources that are available for those in need of housing and mental health treatment.

When it comes to the question of whether to give panhandlers money, Dalhaus recommends people do what your heart tells you, adding: “If you’re going to give money, don’t just give it to them. Stand there, look them in the eye, have a conversation with them. You’re taking the time, you’re investing — whether it’s a minute or ten minutes — in that person... You never know who's going to touch your heart in a way you weren't expecting.”

Officer Dan Ward with the Champaign Police Department was also on the panel. He pointed out that panhandling is protected by the First Amendment, as long as it is not aggressive or within 10 feet of a bus stop or ATM. In those cases, local law enforcement can get involved.

Panelists also presented an overview of local resources available for those in need of emergency shelter or transitional housing, as well as mental health treatment. The event took place at the Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church and was primarily geared toward the members of the Champaign Center Partnership but was also open to the public. Roughly 40 people were in attendance.

Listen to the full recording of the panel discussion here:

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman