In freezing conditions, Evanston nonprofits and volunteers organize shelter for the homeless


Source: First Presbyterian Church Facebook

First Presbyterian Church, 1427 Chicago Ave. The church opened its doors to housing insecure people during the cold.

Aaron Boxerman, Reporter

In the basement of First Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, Evanston’s homeless sought shelter from the extreme cold outside. Cots and mattresses filled the space. Volunteers and guests mingled, playing cards and drinking tea.

As temperatures plunged below zero during this week’s polar vortex, this basement was Evanston’s only emergency shelter for the homeless. Interfaith Action of Evanston, a group that provides resources to those in need, coordinates a rotating schedule of homeless shelters at participating congregations in the city. First Presbyterian is hosting through early February, when the shelter will move to Beth Emet Synagogue.

“We’re not turning anyone away tonight,” said Susan Murphy, the executive director of Interfaith Action.

Interfaith Action began operating its emergency shelter at a small church in 2003, Murphy said. The shelter ran only a few days out of the year, whenever the temperature dropped below zero degrees. Over the years, Murphy worked to expand the shelter’s hours and reach, and Interfaith Action announced last year that the shelter would open whenever the temperature dropped below twenty degrees.

The organization changed its plans last November, when a homeless woman died on the doorstep of First United Methodist Church in Evanston. The Evanston Police Department ruled Tanuel Major’s death a homicide, unrelated to freezing weather conditions.

On Wednesday night, 47 people slept on the floor of First Presbyterian, Murphy said. The shelter normally hosts 27 people per night, she said.

Wednesday was also Murphy’s birthday. Other volunteers encouraged her to go home and celebrate with her partner, Joe, who also volunteers at the shelter, but she lingered at the shelter, chatting and making cups of coffee.

Karl, a homeless man who sleeps at Interfaith Action’s shelter most nights and asked The Daily not to use his last name, said Murphy’s patience is “tremendous.”

“She makes everyone feel safe,” he said.

Nia Tavoularis, the director of development at Connections for the Homeless — a nonprofit that provides services to Evanston’s homeless — said her organization provided extra cots and mats at their location at 1458 Chicago Ave. for homeless men seeking protection from the cold. She said Connections for the Homeless partners with Interfaith Action to provide services for housing-insecure and homeless people in Evanston.

Tavoularis criticized the city for not providing enough warming centers accessible to the homeless, mentioning that the Evanston Public Library, which many homeless people use as a respite from the cold, was closed Wednesday and Thursday. Though the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center and the Levy Senior Center were open as warming centers, neither location is close to public transportation, Tavoularis said.

“There’s a gap in services,” Tavoularis said. “Social service providers are stepping into the gap, and we’re trying to do the best we can.”

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz said Evanston would have to evaluate if there were available resources for the city to fund a permanent shelter.

He said he applauded the services provided by Connections and Interfaith Action.

“At this point, while it’s not perfect, the work that our nonprofits are doing serve a critical need,” Bobkiewicz said. “It’s a constant struggle for all of us who work to provide services to have to find the funding for it.”

First Methodist was scheduled to host the shelter beginning two weeks after Major’s death on its doorstep, which “opened a lot of eyes” to a need for a year-round emergency shelter in Evanston, Murphy said.

The congregation of First Methodist approached Murphy with an offer she couldn’t refuse: to donate funds that would allow the shelter to open every night, rather than only when the temperature dipped below twenty degrees.

Before this year, Barthelmess said, Evanston’s homeless often had no choice but to spend the night in parking garages, on the train or “begging for any spot to stay warm.”

“What’s been done of late for homeless people in Evanston is pretty phenomenal,” Barthelmess said. “People don’t die only when it’s this cold out. You can freeze at higher temperatures too, so to have somewhere to go is critical.”

Charlene Parris, an organizer and congregation member at First Presbyterian Church, said volunteers and supervisors staff the shelter all night. Parris said the community response had been overwhelmingly supportive.

However, Murphy said she is not sure if Interfaith Action can sustain being open every night for another winter.

“That extra money is a one-time gift,” Murphy said. “Most of our money comes from donations from the different faith communities. We hope that will continue, but we’re going to have to push harder. We don’t have another option.”

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