Strides Shelter Nears One-Year Anniversary: ​​’Very Grateful for Community Support’

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CHAMPAIGN — It’s been nearly a year since the City of Champaign began taking on the challenge of providing year-round shelter to those who have no home or anywhere else to go.

Looking back on the first year of Champaign Township’s Strides shelter, Township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom says it’s going well and he feels grateful.

“I would say we are very grateful for the community support,” he said.

Strides’ first year, which opened Dec. 12, 2022 at 70 E. Washington St., C, has not been without its challenges, including staffing and the shelter at capacity every night since it opened, Quarnstrom said.

But there are also people who volunteer regularly, the money needed to run the shelter is available for next year and of the approximately 30 staff positions, only three are currently vacant, he said.

“We continue to operate without any major issues,” Quarnstrom said.

Steps have been made to provide a “low-barrier” shelter for homeless people who may also be abusing drugs or alcohol, although drug and alcohol use is not permitted on the premises.

The need for this type of shelter arose after the organization that previously operated a homeless shelter at the same address, CU at Home, changed its focus to helping people ready to quit drugs and alcohol.

Today, thanks to donations from the cities of Champaign and Urbana and funding, Strides can operate for next year and already has much of the funding in place for a third year, Quarnstrom said.

Besides the challenges, there have also been some success stories, he and shelter director Carla Zarnsy said.

Of the 70 shelter guests who moved in last year and stepped up, Zarnsy said, only five have returned to Strides.

Zarnsy recalled not knowing what to expect when she started her job in September 2022, with the city’s expectation that a shelter building would be available sooner then.

She’d heard rumors of big shelter fights, “so I thought, ‘OK, I’m just planning for the worst,'” she recalled.

The big fights he expected didn’t happen, Zarnsy said.

“If people fight, it’s one-on-one and, more importantly, it’s verbal,” he said.

When arguments become physical, Zarnsy said, staff members talk to both parties when they go back to bed at night about how they could have handled the situation differently and how they can move forward to prevent it from happening again.

Even though the shelter is at capacity, there is still more need out there.

Zarnsy said there is currently a waiting list with 28 names, and she has noticed an increase in the number of women needing shelter in recent months.

Strides, which currently can house 50 men and 14 women in separate areas, has the capacity to accommodate an additional nine men and seven more women on a temporary basis, without additional staff, during cold-related emergencies, he said.

The shelter could add 23 more beds, but that would require at least one more volunteer, he said.

Quarnstrom said no expansions in terms of inpatient beds are planned for next year, but the municipality will create a more robust day center that will open up the opportunity for more space and activities.

Zarnsy said he hopes to see some renovations for the drop-in space begin next spring.

Meanwhile, as one of the shelter’s 12 original staff members who started on day one and are still on the job, she said she enjoys the job and looks forward to continuing to make improvements next year.

Strides will likely be full, as usual, on Thanksgiving, but Zarnsy said the holiday will be brightened for shelter guests and staff on hand with a prepared meal sent by CU Church.

She feels grateful too.

“I’m grateful to be able to offer guests a place where they can come and build community with each other,” she said.

And not just with each other, but with the staff, Zarnsy said.

There is a high rate of burnout in social services jobs, he said, but “I’m having fun, I’ll tell you that. I like having the door open.”

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