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Previously homeless social work student helps fight local poverty

By Anna Spoerre, @annaspoerre

As a child, Shannon Butler experienced chronic homelessness. Her family moved from Memphis to Carbondale in the 1990s where they lived in multiple shelters, including the Good Samaritan House and the Women’s Center, until they eventually found affordable housing.

Now Butler, a master’s student in social work, works at the Carbondale Public Library as a social worker where she helps impoverished locals find resources and aid.

Butler began her internship at the library because of a partnership between the library, the university and the Sparrow Coalition — a community network focusing on social issues of poverty and homelessness. Before that, there were no places homeless people could go and receive help finding services, said Dona Reese, a social work professor at SIU who supervises Butler.

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“There are a lot of homeless people who sit in the library, and we have known that for 20 years,” Reese said. “They get shelter, use the computers.”

MORE: City seeks local solution to homelessness | Community coalition wants to end poverty

Butler had four clients when she started the internship in August. Now she has 60 clients of all races ranging in age from 18 to 65.

The poverty rate in Jackson County is 30.4 percent — more than twice the Illinois average and the highest of any county in the state, according to a February report by the Social Impact Research Center.

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“It almost seemed like, when I was a child, that everyone lived in poverty,” Butler said.

Once she realized that was not the case, she said she wanted to empower others and let them know there can be success from poverty.

“Poverty in our area does not speak volumes,” Butler said. “It unfortunately is viewed in our society as laziness and as not that important … and that alone is a huge problem.”

Instead, she said many people in need don’t know of available resources, how to get them or if they even qualify for aid. Butler provides them with that information and makes connections for them.

So far, Butler helped house two families and assisted others in finding transportation out of the city to an area where they may have a better chance at success.

With the state’s longest budget impasse to date, resources have been cut, especially in southern Illinois, which continues the vicious cycle of poverty in the region, Butler said. 

Reese, one of the founding members of the Sparrow Coalition, said Butler, who graduates in May, is training the next intern to serve during the summer.

“Shannon has been an unbelievable advocate in the community,” Reese said. “She’s gone way beyond what you would ever expect a social work student to ever be able to do.”

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325.

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The student news site of Southern Illinois University