Church organizes temporary shelter for homeless during Evanston winters

Madeline Fox, Reporter

When the temperature drops below 5 degrees this winter, a local organization will open a shelter for Evanston’s homeless population to provide them with a place to sleep and protection from severe weather.

Interfaith Action of Evanston’s cold shelter, located at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1004 Greenwood St., has provided cots to people with limited options for about six years, said Susan Murphy, the director of Interfaith Action, an organization that brings together a diverse community to serve people in need.

“Once it gets cold, there’s really no other place for homeless people to go besides the library, and you can’t sleep there,” Murphy said. “This gives them a place to lie down for a while.”

Interfaith Action’s cold center is the only overnight shelter of its kind in Evanston.

In 2010, there was a national shift toward housing-first homeless programs. The programs gained traction with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ Opening Doors strategy. The strategy shifted the federal focus, and therefore funding, away from temporary relief programs and services, and toward an approach focused on permanent housing options.

“The mindset used to be to get people into these transitional spots, and then once they’re ready we can get them into housing,” said Mary Ellen Poole, the city’s housing planner. “Now, there’s been a shift so housing is the first thing we need to get people.”

Interfaith Action continues to offer many of the temporary relief programs that have received less emphasis under the housing-first policy. In addition to its cold shelter, the organization runs morning and afternoon shelters and coordinates several soup kitchens in the area.

Murphy and Interfaith Action work closely with other Evanston-area organizations for the homeless, including Connections for the Homeless, an organization focused on housing and employment services, as well as homelessness prevention. The two organizations often share clients. Those seeking housing and services from Connections for the Homeless will stop by Interfaith Action’s shelters for access to food and other services.

Sue Loellbach, director of development for Connections for the Homeless, said she wishes Interfaith Action’s services were unnecessary, but acknowledges the services it provides are critical, especially with winters as cold as last year.

“I think ideally, everybody who wanted it would have a place to go at night — a safe, dry, warm place — but that just isn’t the case right now,” Loellbach said. “Interfaith is filling a serious need.”

She said there are several hundred people in Evanston who don’t have a permanent place to stay.

For Poole, although the services Interfaith Action and Connections for the Homeless provide are essential, she said meeting those immediate and long-term needs does not completely address the problem.

“At the end of the day, when we’re talking about homelessness, it’s not necessarily just a conversation about a roof — that’s just the first step,” Poole said. “Having a conversation about shelter is really a conversation about poverty, mental illness, addiction and so many other factors.”

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