More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Lasalle homeless shelterless

Sunday rally aims to persuade city to open shelter, which has code violations

December 14, 2001
of the Journal Star

LASALLE - Multiple sclerosis hasn't stopped her. Blindness hasn't either.

Not even carbon monoxide poisoning has stopped 48-year-old Mary Terese Balma from fighting for the rights of homeless people in LaSalle.

But the city's decision to condemn and close the shelter just might.

"People keep coming up to me asking me, 'What are you going to do?' " said Balma, a volunteer for the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness and former director of the Public Action to Deliver Shelter in LaSalle.

"Why does it have to involve only one person. It should be a community effort. I can't waste my energy and I don't have patience for it anymore, but I will not go away quietly."

The shelter, which is a former school building, was shut down for code violations including large amounts of combustible materials - piles of clothes - and ventilation problems. LaSalle Mayor Art Washkowiak said there also were problems with the use of space and torpedo heaters.

Despite the city's claims, Balma argues the building is inhabitable and the city only wants the property to build a roller skating rink with a $125,000 Illinois FIRST grant.

Not true, Washkowiak said.

"At one time we considered building a skate park there, but those plans have been abandoned and the money has gone to the local YMCA to construct a skate board park on their property," Washkowiak said. "We have no intentions of purchasing the building."

Washkowiak said he has met with the building's owner to discuss the violations. The owner has stated that there might be a potential buyer looking at the property and it could have "another use perhaps."

Meanwhile, Balma said the homeless people that normally stay at the shelter instead have resided on the streets since the building failed to open for the winter on Oct. 15.

Supporters of the homeless shelter will rally at 2 p.m. on Sunday at LaSalle's Grace United Methodist Church to try and convince the city to open the shelter immediately.

"What do we tell these women with children . . . too bad?" Balma asked.

Washkowiak suggested they stay in their local church basements.

"It's always 50 percent of congregation will accept you and 50 percent won't," Balma said. "We have looked at 10 to 12 buildings and heard the same story, and that is no."

Without local churches to depend on, the more than 20 homeless people have turned to the nearest shelter about 15 miles away in Ottawa, which opened Dec. 1. But there's more people than capacity will allow.

Sending LaSalle's homeless to Ottawa is not a realistic solution, said Diane Nilan, a board member of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness.

And after Ottawa, the nearest shelter is about 60 miles away in Aurora, where Nilan is the program director. "We've already had two guys from LaSalle-Peru here," Nilan said. "LaSalle needs to be responsible for their own homeless people."

Nilan suggested the city let the shelter remain open throughout the winter or until an alternative location is found.

"The technicalities are irrelevant when there are people sleeping outside," Nilan said. "Truly I would not be into advocating for an unsafe facility, it's bad enough (homeless people) have to stay in shelters, but I think its sinful to have room in the inn and not have the door open."