Connections for the Homeless hosts Alex Kotlowitz talk on youth homelessness


Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Kotlowitz spoke at the Hilton Garden Inn on Wednesday about youth homelessness. An award-winning journalist, Kotlowitz is also a writer-in-residence at Northwestern.

Ben Schaefer, Reporter

Award-winning journalist Alex Kotlowitz spoke Wednesday to about 100 people about the detrimental effects of youth homelessness at a luncheon in Evanston organized by local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless.

Drawing on more than two decades of experience working in Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods, Kotlowitz, also a Northwestern writer-in-residence, shared his views on the vicious cycle of poverty, homelessness and violence that keeps so many lower-class youth trapped in lower-class neighborhoods.

“In communities that have broken down, the terrain becomes ripe for violence,” said Kotlowitz. “So in the end, we need to find a way to rebuild communities and fortify families. And I believe there’s a way to use housing as an entry point to do just that.”

Donors, partners and various workers and representatives from the social work network within northern Cook County showed up at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1818 Maple Ave., to hear what he had to say.

Attendee Katie Speth is a volunteer at Curt’s Cafe, an Evanston establishment that works with at-risk youth to give them tutoring, counseling, work experience and skills to serve them in the job market.

“The homeless demographic is definitely someone that is coming to us as our students,” Speth said. “I thought this would help me get a better picture of them.”

Connections for the Homeless is in its 30th year of serving struggling populations in the northern suburbs with housing, employment and other services. The organization’s primary goal is rehousing — getting people off the street and into homes — which they were able to do for 150 people last year, said Sue Loellbach, the organization’s director of development.

“We felt that (Kotlowitz) had such a strong understanding of how housing fits into the whole poverty picture that he would be a good one to get across the idea that housing really needs to be the foundation,” she said. “If people don’t have a place to live, those other programs won’t have a way to function.”

Kotlowitz is the author of “There Are No Children Here,” an account of two boys growing up in an inner-city Chicago housing project, and the maker of “The Interrupters,” a documentary that follows a community group that works to curb the spread of violence in the same area. It was from what he did for the book and film, as well as for several of his other works, that he gained his expertise in the subject.

“The schools are absolutely essential, there’s no question about it,” Kotlowitz told The Daily. “We’ve done a really miserable job of providing a good education for kids growing up in these neighborhoods. I think if we want to be really honest about reforming our schools we have to pay attention to the issues going on in these communities as well.”

Connections for the Homeless plans to focus its energies on fighting chronic homelessness and finding families that need aid. It has teamed up with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and District 202 to target the families that need aid and to get them the assistance they need.

In Evanston, the child homeless rate doubled in the past year, Loellbach said. Speth said she is adamant about what is needed to help that demographic.

“They need love, and they need someone to believe in them,” she said.

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