‘Safe Haven’ dispute in Champaign spotlights homeless

CHAMPAIGN — Ron doesn’t hesitate when asked what he wants people to know about homelessness in this bustling college community.

“We’re people, just like you,” he says simply. “Look in the mirror.”

Ron, 53, hasn’t always been accorded that dignity during his days, weeks and months on the streets, but there are still some who are willing to treat him with respect. Among them is Father Tom Royer and the members of St. Mary’s Parish in Champaign.

Ron and about 15 other men and women have dealt with homelessness by forming a tent community known as Safe Haven. Their current host is Father Royer’s parish, although it hasn’t been easy.

A self-policing community that doesn’t permit alcohol, drugs or violence, Safe Haven has had to move several times because “the use of one or more tents as temporary residences or abodes” is considered a violation of Champaign City Code. Though Father Royer informed Mayor Gerald Schweighart and the City Council of his plans to host Safe Haven for 30 days and offered to work with city officials to find a way that the Champaign community could be hospitable to the group, he was also told they could not stay on parish grounds.

Facing fines of up to $750 a day if the tent community remained, Father Royer invited Safe Haven to move into the Oscar Romero Parish Center last Friday, Aug. 21, the city’s deadline. Even so, Zoning Administrator Kevin Phillips said no more than 20 can be housed there.

City officials have cited safety and health concerns as major issues during the dispute, which started in June when the tent community was staying on the grounds of the St. Jude Catholic Worker House in Champaign.

“It boggles my mind. This is a religious act,” Father Royer told The Catholic Post last week.

“The code we are following is found in the sacred Scriptures of many different faiths,” he said in a letter published Aug. 20 in The News-Gazette of Champaign. “It is this: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

“The works of mercy are an essential part of my religious faith,” he wrote. “Giving shelter to the homeless is a work of mercy.”

Parishioners are trying “to reverence the humanity of those without a safe place to sleep,” Father Royer explained.

“People here have responded very, very generously,” he said, after accepting shopping bags with toilet paper and personal care items from someone who stopped by during the interview. Safe Haven “guests” have also received fresh produce and food from those who want to help.

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