Evanston homeless shelters strive to survive

Susan Du

A March report from the Task Force on Homelessness report called for a “housing first” approach to end homelessness in Evanston, which has been the primary strategy of Connections for the Homeless for at least the past six years.

The local homelessness advocacy organization spent several decades of protests, community outreach and struggles with unstable funding sources to achieve its current capacity and influence in the city.

Connections for the Homeless operates two housing and service facilities in Evanston that serve more than 1,000 homeless clients throughout the North Shore. In 1984, Connections’ resources consisted of a few cots set up in the basement of Lake Street Church, 607 Lake St. At the time, Evanston had no official shelter for the homeless.

On Halloween of 1984, the Rev. Bob Thompson invited the homeless to attend an all-night interfaith worship service in the basement of Lake Street Church, then known as First Baptist Church. Some attendees participated while others went to sleep, but because Thompson and other clergy billed the evening as a prayer vigil, they could bypass zoning ordinances that required the church to apply for permits from the city to set up a shelter.

“Many people at Lake Street Church feel Connections for the Homeless is part of our mission in the world,” church activist Katy Pendleton said. “It’s in our basement and we really did help found it,”

Eventually the shelter received the proper permits to operate a shelter, and Connections for the Homeless formed as an independent nonprofit.

Today, Lake Street Church continues to house one of Connections’ facilities in addition to providing monetary and personnel support.

Connections for the Homeless executive director Paul Selden said the transition wasn’t completely smooth, however, because some Evanston residents opposed its establishment.

“Frankly I’ve never been in a city where there wasn’t conflict around the opening of a shelter,” Selden said. “The usual complaint is that it’s going to affect resale prices, real estate values, and people get up in arms. They think there’ll be long lines of people outside, and they think it’ll be a blight on the city. And it never turns out that way, but it’s kind of one of the concerns.”

Today Connections for the Homeless, the primary resource for Evanston’s homeless, has a “very close, supportive working relationship” with the city, Pendleton said. However, it remains relatively independent from the city both in terms of its operations and its funding, which is primarily acquired through state and federal grants. The Task Force on Homelessness’ report did not request additional funds from Evanston to support its recommendations. SESP Prof. Dan Lewis told the daily last week the commission feared the City Council would not approve the report if it had a monetary provision.

“The city has never been a major funder of the programs for the homeless,” Selden said. “I think the plan rightly says that the goal is to find other sources and to coordinate how they’re used.”

Connections for the Homeless will face additional challenges in upcoming years as federal stimulus money dwindles. So far, Selden said the organization has been fairly successful in adapting to the instability of available government funding.

“I know a lot of agencies that have gone under,” Selden said. “And I think we’ve been far enough ahead of the curve. We’ve remained strong and stable in the midst of these changes, and I would expect that would continue. At least I don’t expect that we’d be suddenly sandbagged and have to close our doors.”

Selden said in addition to crossing his fingers for the job market to turn around, he is looking for more stable, private sources of funding and creative ways to use existing funds more efficiently.

Lewis wrote in an email to the daily that Northwestern does not invest in Connections for the Homeless apart from occasionally buying a table at its annual fundraiser. However, many University students volunteer, including Mary Rawlinson, a second-year student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Rawlinson, an intern with Connections for the Homeless who had been volunteering since 2010, said her duties include helping homeless clients with job searches as well as coordinating a spirituality group that meets twice a week.

“It’s really informed my faith, my understanding of how God works in the world and the community and with people,” Rawlinson said. “Just being to experience the diversity of people and the experiences of the clients and the volunteers has been a tremendously enriching part of my studies.”

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