“However long it takes:” Head of Carbondale Warming Center in it for long haul
August 28, 2022
The hot July sun beats down on the aging façade of the once student dormitory, then public housing and now homeless shelter. Residents sit on plastic chairs in the shade, shooting the breeze and playing card games while others keep cool inside.
Signs fill some of the windows along the asphalt parking lot leading up to the glass double door asking for masks to be worn indoors to prevent the spread of disease. Warnings tell of 15 minute wait times between leaving the premises and being allowed inside the Carbondale Warming Center.
Through the doors sits a cooler filled with ice and bottled water next to a hand sanitizer dispenser. Opposite the station is a glass window to the office, filled with supplies of all types and with a large clock with the space between the numerals 12 and 1 shaded in red.
The cool indoor air is a pleasing contrast to the oppressive heat and humidity of the Southern Illinois summer. The center is calm and peaceful, despite the number of people in crisis.
“These buildings used to be called ‘U-city,’” said Carmalita Cahill, who heads the center. “They were dorms, then they were classrooms. The building across from us used to be a police station. Southern Illinois Health was in here, Centerstone [outpatient medical services] used to be here, the Special Olympics offices were here. This place has been used in all sorts of different ways throughout the years.”
The Carbondale Warming Center (CWC) is a homeless shelter, open to the public and run by a team of people with years of experience working with individuals in crisis. At the helm is Cahill, a middle-aged Black woman with graying hair and a smile that shines from behind her mask, joking with her friend, Teneshkia Wright and daughter Angela Pierce.
“For the population that we serve, just general hygiene and washing your hands can mitigate the passage [of disease]. If you don’t have that, then what does that do to that person while they’re already marginalized and looked down upon,” Cahill said
Cahill has been the administrative director for the CWC since December of 2019, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores. A veteran of the social work field, she has led the facility as the virus prompted an expansion of duties expanding its hours to include 24/7 availability for people in crisis.
“The warming center has been an entity since 2016,” Cahill said. “The basic idea was how we had those out there that couldn’t thrive in the existing shelter structure or where there wasn’t enough room.”
After moving from Pennsylvania to Ohio for a decade then back to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Cahill moved to Carbondale to be closer with recently discovered family.
Taking the experience of working in various local shelters in the places where she settled, Cahill found work in Southern Illinois at the Good Samaritan House, another local homeless shelter, before finally landing at the CWC, where she would be promoted to executive director in December 2019.
“It was a bit of a culture shock,” Pierce said. “The main thing I noticed was a lot of people don’t ever finish high school, and where I’m from it’s the one thing most people do.”
Pierce said another major difference is the status of the help that tends to come through, which is seasonal and often fluctuates with students attending nearby Southern Illinois University (SIU), often relying on students in their Social Work program to fill in gaps during the colder months.
Cahill said her position was originally intended to be for only four months, but the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic increased her term indefinitely as the need for a location where the homeless can shelter in place was made apparent to local officials.
“To keep our guests as close to the center as possible, we try to provide everything they will need while they’re here,” Cahill said. “Between Noon and 1 P.M. we bring out a little rolling machine with paper and loose tobacco so the guests don’t have to leave the premises. Meanwhile, in that time, we’re doing a lot of educating on how to keep healthy and get the resources they need to succeed.”
Pierce said the onset of the pandemic provided new opportunities to help the guests of the center by giving them a place to operate from instead of subsisting on the streets.
“COVID didn’t really make the work difficult, we just started serving in different ways,” Pierce said. “Everyone had to be indoors. Trying to explain that to people who are already going through crisis is a little hard, but they eventually got it.”
Wright said working at the CWC was difficult at first, but being friends with Cahill and having a little time to get used to working with needy populations made it easier to acclimate to the job.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to quit.’ But then I wouldn’t say it as much… maybe once or twice a month. But, you know, I really enjoy working for Carmelita, she’s a really good boss, one of the best I’ve ever had,” Wright said.
She said the best part about working at the CWC is the tight-knit family nature of the job and the community-oriented nature of the work, especially as led by Cahill.
“[This work’s] not for everybody,” Wright said. “Most of the people we serve here are in some type of crisis. If you’re homeless, you’re in some type of crisis because homelessness is a crisis. But if you can’t shut off that stress and compartmentalize, you’ll take home a lot of people’s feelings and behaviors that you don’t know what to do with.”
Cahill said she approaches the work with a mindset of helping people in need and helping to change her world for the better.
“Wanting to [help people], I think, is just a part of who a person is. It can be an outrage and you can be upset, but change only comes when you choose to make that difference and be the kind of change you want to see,” she said.
As if on cue, a number of residents made their way into the building, asking to make phone calls or resupply a bathroom or seemingly just to make small talk. According to Pierce, this type of behavior is typical.
“When they see we’re doing something, all of a sudden everybody wants everything under the sun,” she said jokingly. The others nod their head in agreement, sharing a few jokes before focusing back in.
“But, in all seriousness, we get people from all over the Southern Illinois region,” Cahill said. “We’ve really had people from all over. We had one woman who came from Montana because family said she and her infant son could stay with them, but then she got here and they were just as bad off as she was.”
The look on her face drops a little as she remembers but picks back up almost instantly.
“She called here, and I asked if she could get here and she did. The next day we went and got the baby’s stuff and we started working with them,” she said.
While the center provided the mother a place to stay, she was able to get on her feet again, according to Cahill. She began attending GED classes, got a job and moved on to secure her own apartment from there.
“It may sound weird, but some people come to the shelter to heal, and that takes time,” she said. “It’s traumatic, and we accept there’s trauma from other events, but we don’t look at that as trauma as a society even though that disrupts the safety and security that you feel you can offer yourself or your family.”
Cahill said the most important thing the CWC gives people is a place to gather their strength and connect with local resources to move forward with their life but making sure that takes place in the appropriate timeframe for them.
“People can take a lot of time, or they can take a little bit,” Cahill said. “But if you force somebody to go quicker that isn’t ready, I’m more likely to see them again in a few months and it can be just as bad as not helping at all.”
The group begins to shift a bit as Wright starts gathering her belongings to spend time with her grandchildren before they move to Texas the next day. Cahill and Pierce start organizing the office to prepare for the eventuality of their use while some downtime still exists.
The day wraps up for all three as the sun begins to set. The air begins to cool and the residents start trickling their way into the building to prepare for the coming meal. Each one has a safe, healthy place to stay thanks to Cahill and her employees.
Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.