Community members reflect on ways accessibility impacts homeless services


Eva Herscowitz/The Daily Northwestern

The women’s side of the shelter at First Presbyterian Church. The church also has a warming center on the same floor.

Max Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

Shelters and warming centers can provide a place for homeless people to escape harsh conditions during the winter. But for disabled individuals, homeless services are not always accessible, said Cathleen O’Brien, community organizer of housing at Access Living, an advocacy group for disability rights.

She added that disabled people can be more vulnerable to homelessness because of low employment, discrimination from landlords and financial reasons.

“Disabled people often have to make a choice between affordable and accessible housing,” O’Brien said. “So we’re often some of the first people pushed out, because we were already renting at the top of our budget in order to have an accessible place.”

On any given night, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates that 24 percent of people experiencing homelessness meet the federal definition of chronically homeless, according to a 2018 report.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a chronically homeless individual as someone with a disability who has either repeatedly experienced homelessness or has been homeless for at least one year.

Barry Taylor, vice president for civil rights and litigation at Equip for Equality, said it is vital that homeless services are accessible.

“If it’s not accessible, it has potentially dire circumstances and consequences,” he said. “If people can’t get into a shelter and go somewhere else, it can lead to the extreme situation of someone dying.”

Last year, a lawsuit was filed against city-funded Chicago homeless shelters for discrimination against people with disabilities. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff Laura Martin, who has rheumatoid arthritis, was turned away from multiple shelters due to her difficulty walking.

O’Brien said the lawsuit exemplifies a larger problem in Chicago. She noted other examples of discrimination, such as shelters not communicating with deaf people, excluding people with wheelchairs and turning a blind man away.

Unlike Chicago, none of Evanston’s homeless services are fully city-funded and run, said Ike Ogbo, Evanston’s director of health and human services. Instead, community organizations like Connections for the Homeless and Interfaith Action of Evanston provide homeless services.

Both groups receive some money from the city. Ogbo said Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department doesn’t monitor their services for accessibility.

“We have faith in these community partners that provide services to the community,” Ogbo said, “and we haven’t had any deficiency or issue (related to inaccessibility) that has been reported to the department.”

Interfaith Action director Sue Murphy said the organization receives funding through the city, but the majority comes from other sources.

Connections for the Homeless receives the Emergency Solutions Grant and the Community Development Block Grant, which is federal funding passed through the city, said Jennifer Kouba, associate director of development at Connections for the Homeless.

Connections for the Homeless has some accessible locations, such as drop-in services at its main office, 2121 Dewey Ave., Kouba said.

Another location, 1458 Chicago Ave., offers drop-in services and Hilda’s Place, which is an overnight shelter for men. These are located in the basement of Lake Street Church, which requires someone to walk a short flight of stairs to access, she said.

Kouba added that the organization will partner with First United Methodist Church to open Daisy’s Place, an accessible transitional shelter for women, this spring.

Interfaith Action of Evanston, a nonprofit that partners with Evanston faith institutions, offers warming centers and overnight shelters from mid-November to March, among other services. Overnight shelters rotate to a different location after a three-week period, while warming centers occur Monday through Friday on a daily rotating schedule.

Murphy said there is not a single approach that all the facilities under Interfaith Action take to provide accessibility to disabled people. However, she said they haven’t been made aware of any issues with their current facilities.

As part of Interfaith Action of Evanston, First Congregational Church of Evanston provides a warming center and overnight shelter. At both of their locations, there are electric lifts to help wheelchair-users access the building, church administrator Miko Fentanes said.

“We’re open and affirming and we try and show we welcome every human being,” Fentanes said, “no matter who you are.”

Meanwhile, Beth Emet Synagogue is part of the overnight shelter program through Interfaith Action, and independently provides a weekly soup kitchen. The synagogue has a committee that works to make its services accessible and inclusive, soup kitchen chair Leslie Levin-Shulruff said.

Levin-Shulruff said Beth Emet recently built more accessible bathrooms and is currently constructing a parking lot ramp to make the building more accessible. At the soup kitchen, they have another door with a ramp for wheelchair users, and volunteers can assist guests travelling down the food line, she said.

First Presbyterian Church, another member of Interfaith Action, holds its warming center and shelter on the ground floor of the church. The door leading to the facility has a ramp rather than stairs, said Caryl Weinberg, director of missions.

Weinberg added that many people in need of services will line up at the shelters for two to three hours before they open at 9 p.m.

She said that can be difficult, especially if the weather is bad, because people may have to stand in line to guarantee a space in the shelter.

“If it’s raining, if it’s snowing, they get soaking wet, if it’s really cold, they’re freezing by the time they get in,” she said. “So the shelters are great, and the warming centers are great, but there’s still a gap. It’d be nice to see the city be able to help out with some of those things, I know we’re doing things a step at a time.”

Waiting in line could present challenges to disabled people, as some physical disabilities prevent standing or sitting for long periods of time.

Ogbo said the city is discussing solutions for when facilities reach capacity.

“We’ll continue to work with our community partners but also know that there’s a need when those shelters are at capacity,” he said. “We are working towards a city-designated shelter so if those shelters are overwhelmed, we will have some place for people to be accommodated.”

City-funded services would fall under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, but both O’Brien and Taylor said it would be better to go beyond the ADA requirements.

Taylor said it’s important for groups to ask disabled people about their concerns for services and include them in the planning process for improvements or new initiatives.

“The best way to figure out those accommodations is an interactive process, where you engage with the person just going to figure out what they think makes sense,” he said. “And then you evaluate your resources and try to figure out how to best meet those needs.”

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Twitter: @maxlubbers

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