When Phoenix Community Development Services (CDS) was founded in Peoria nearly 40 years ago, their goal was to distribute food to those in need and provide referrals to other resources. Since then (when they were known as South Side Office of Concern), they have evolved into the largest agency dedicated to ending homelessness in Central Illinois, with 170 units of housing and more on schedule to be ready by the end of this year.
“Yes, the food pantry was the first program,” recalls Chief Executive Officer of Phoenix CDS, Christine Kahl. “But the first paid employee was called a community organizer, and everything was done in response to the neighborhood needs.” Kahl emphasizes that Phoenix CDS’s biggest transformation hasn’t been the programs they offer, but instead the lens they use to evaluate the community’s needs. “We’re looking at it on a systematic level now, not just on a neighborhood level, which is how it was founded.”
This has led Phoenix CDS to focus on providing supportive housing, which includes support services along with a place to call home. “I think what makes us unique as a housing provider is that we are also a licensed mental health agency,” says Kahl. “More than 80% of everyone who’s living in our housing has a mental health diagnosis. So, when I talk about the wraparound services, it includes everything from trained mental health support, to substance abuse interventions, to case management, to food assistance.” Kahl sees this, as well as their ability to serve clients for varying amounts of time, as key to the success of their programs. “It’s all tailored to what that individual needs […] and I think that’s part of what has made our model work so well. We have had folks who have lived with us for 30 years, we have other folks who only live with us for a year or less. It is all dependent on that person achieving self-sufficiency in the way that they want to.”
In the first 4 months of the pandemic, Phoenix CDS gave out over 19,000 meals to community members.
When asked what happened when COVID-19 hit back in March of 2020, Kahl describes early challenges. “We immediately grappled with food insecurity issues […]. By the time that [our clients] could actually get to grocery stores, the shelves were bare.” Staying true to their original mission, Phoenix pivoted full force back to food distribution. They worked with local food businesses that had shut down and negotiated meal preparation at a reduced price. “We used businesses locally, so it allowed them to payroll for employees, and allowed us to do some food distribution.” In just 4 months, they gave out over 19,000 meals to community members. “We started out as a food pantry, but we really haven’t done a lot recently with food insecurity. The pandemic just threw us right back into that place.”
Phoenix CDS has also been working overtime to relieve the lack of sanitation access to people experiencing homelessness. “Access to restroom facilities and the ability to wash up and have good sanitation practices became a huge issue with the unsheltered population.” First, Phoenix CDS focused on distributing port-a-potties, PPE, and hand sanitizer, all of which were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic. After that, they were able to focus on a longer-term goal. “For years, we had wanted a personal hygiene vehicle. We were able to partner with our local United Way, our local community foundation, and raised almost $200,000 to go procure that vehicle.” HOWIE (Hygiene On Wheels Independence Empowered) has two showers, two washing machines and dryers, and two bathrooms. It had to be specially retrofitted to be ADA accessible and cold weather resistant. While the planning started early on into the pandemic, the vehicle was just finished at the beginning of March 2021, and Phoenix CDS is excited to get it into the field.
As the pandemic has played out, Phoenix CDS has also ramped up the direct relief funding they provide to community members. They have received two rounds of COVID-19 relief funds through United Way and one round through Housing Action Illinois, the majority of which has gone towards homeless prevention measures such as utility and rental assistance. Because the organization already had good landlord relationships, they were able to channel a lot of money in a very short period of time. “We doled out $404,000 of rental assistance, basically in under four months,” Kahl explains, which supported more than 300 households.
The toll that the pandemic has taken on the clients living in Phoenix’s facilities has been both physical and mental. Although Kahl takes pride in how successfully Phoenix CDS implemented new safety measures such as social distancing and face covering—only one of the 400 people they house has tested positive for COVID-19—these measures often contradict their traditional support services. “So many of our consumers have mental illness. A lot of the work we normally do with them is teaching them positive social interactions. Folks with major depression, [we teach] them to get out every day. Now here we were, advising them, ‘don’t.’” Loneliness and boredom have been particularly problematic. “100% of who we serve are low income, so very few households have TVs. They’re staying isolated here, [some] have unmet, behavioral health symptoms, and don’t have the normal recourse that you and I have to combat that. [Also] we aren’t allowing visitors in our premises right now. We’re looking at over a year now that they’ve basically been in some form of lockdown. It’s really hard.”
Meanwhile, in a time that demands a lot of individual client support, Phoenix CDS has been short-staffed due to an increased workload and the high-risk work environment. Since March 2020, they haven’t been fully staffed. “It’s been frustrating,” Kahl says. “We’ve had a really hard time filling positions. Everything from trained mental health professionals, to case managers to outreach specialists, to maintenance staff that work inside our housing units.” (If you’re interested, find job openings with Phoneix CDS online here.)
Child helping out in community garden, which Phoenix plans to expand in the coming years
Despite the many challenges that Phoenix CDS has faced in the past year, they have a lot of initiatives they’re looking forward to, including two new building projects. The first was made possible by Housing Action’s Community Reinvestment Challenge: Phoenix will be converting a building into a workforce development center using an employment first model. “The whole intent is to get a lot more of our folks with multiple barriers into employment, and also to run a social enterprise on site, so that we can employ those consumers and teach them a skill that they go out and use.” The second building is a housing development that they have just broken ground on. The planning for this building started in 2018, and it is slated to provide 24 more apartments.
Lastly, as the weather warms up, Phoenix CDS is looking forward to the possibility of having more outdoor programming. They plan to quadruple the size of their community garden during the coming seasons. The garden is only two years old and sits next to a supportive housing development that serves families, so they get a lot of help from the children who live there. “[The kids] learn how to plant, how to grow, how to prune. With the vegetables and the fruits that are grown, they’re taught how to prepare meals to take back to their family.”
Although Phoenix CDS has faced a year of problem solving, adjusting, and redistributing, it’s clear that no matter what happens they will always stay true to their original mission: doing whatever necessary to respond to the needs of their community.