DECATUR — Homelessness has more than one cause.
For Alma Grason, it came right before Christmas two years ago after the single mother picked up her two children from Holy Family School and arrived at the family home to discover they were being kicked out.
She had sold her small business in Chicago and moved back in with her family in Decatur after she was diagnosed with systemic lupus in 2009, and she suddenly had nowhere to go.
“I had to walk into a shelter, which was scary for me and my kids,” she said. “Coming from one side of the tracks to the other was a shift and a shock.”
Grason, a senior at Millikin University majoring in philosophy and pre-law, was among the speakers at an informational meeting hosted by the university’s Human Service Connection Monday to prepare participants for the group’s fourth annual box city Friday night.
Jon Williamsen, a senior from Beecher majoring in human services and president of the group, said the purpose of spending the night outside in a cardboard box is to give students a more accurate perspective on homelessness. “Not a lot of people think outside the ‘Milli-bubble’ unless they’re forced to,” he said.
Another speaker Monday was Darsonya Switzer, housing program director for Homeward Bound and chairwoman of the Decatur-Macon County Homeless Council Continuum of Care Advisory Committee that has sponsored a community box city annually since 2004.
She told the more than 30 people in attendance that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is 9, thanks to a governmental funding shift toward helping the chronically homeless, who are mostly single and away from helping families.
Students who participate in the box city on the Miller Quad will build their shelter about 7 p.m. Friday and 12 hours later walk to the Decatur Salvation Army to participate in the morning routine in the men’s shelter there.
Consultant Fred Spannaus told the group one of the major causes of homelessness is the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses in the 1980s and 1990s without sufficient community services to help those individuals live independently.