Evanston mayor’s homelessness task force calls for ‘housing first’

Jia You

Evanston should focus on expanding permanent, affordable housing in order to eradicate homelessness from the city, according to the final report by the mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness released last week.

The City Council voted unanimously last Monday to adopt the report, titled “Heading Home,” which listed six recommendations for the city to adopt in the next five years.

“It is ambitious, and I think it’s a really important thing to be ambitious,” said Karen Singer, the group’s co-chair. “It sets a high bar for us to really work hard and get there, and it is doable.”

The report suggested a “housing first model,” which centers on providing homeless and at-risk residents with permanent housing as quickly as possible, and then providing support services that would allow them to stay off the streets.

“It’s really the best practice for the entire country, and it’s been proven year after year that this is the way to get people successfully and permanently housed,” said Mary Ellen Poole, the city’s housing planner.

The report identified that 10 percent of Evanston’s population is currently homeless or at-risk, including 200 students from Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

People who spend more than half their income on housing – including rents, mortgage and utilities – are particularly at risk for ending up homeless, Poole said.

“Those are the people that are most likely not going to have a large cushion in case somebody in the house loses a job or gets sick,” she said.

According to the report, the city currently spends about $50,000 per person annually on the chronically homeless who live on Evanston’s streets. A switch to affordable, permanent housing could save the city as much as $30,000 per person annually over time due to decreased need for emergency room care or police intervention.

The report recommends the city devote more of its existing resources to affordable housing instead of spending more funds, in addition to better coordination between the various agencies working on homelessness.

“There are a lot of groups doing a lot of fantastic work,” Poole said. “The problem is no one really knows what everyone else is doing.”

Potential solutions might include developing a locally funded and managed rental subsidy program that could be set aside for specific populations, such as households with children in Evanston schools.

However, the report cautions against expanding the city’s shelter service, noting it “comes with an expensive price tag.” The 20 beds at Hilda’s Place, a shelter for single homeless adults, cost $225,000 each year, excluding case management services, according to the report.

The report also recommended educating the community about homelessness, including conducting a baseline survey of community knowledge and attitudes about at-risk and homeless people.

The immediate step for the city is establishing a Housing and Homeless Commission, which would incorporate the existing Housing Commission, to set specific goals for addressing homelessness.

“It’s going to be very data-driven, and there will be hard and fast benchmarks to show our progress and our successes,” Poole said.