City Council allocates $500,000 for immigrant and refugee welcoming center


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Councilmember Devon Reid (8th) is chair of the Just Cause task force, a committee created to review new proposed amendments to city housing ordinance.

Simon Carr, Reporter

City Council voted to designate $500,000 in federal relief money toward a new immigrant and refugee welcoming center at its Monday meeting.

Run by Family Focus, the program will serve as a hub for new arrivals to Evanston, providing them workshops and help navigating citywide resources. The program’s main location will be at the nonprofit’s current headquarters on Dewey Avenue, but it will also host activities at schools and faith-based organizations.

City Council funded the center using money from the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated $43 million in emergency funds to the city of Evanston. 

Interim Community Development Director Sarah Flax said Family Focus plans to solicit additional funding for the center by applying for state grants. The organization already operates three welcoming center locations in the Chicago area. 

Flax said the welcoming centers are important to support Evanston’s growing immigrant community. Since late-August, more than 1,200 asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott bussed asylum seekers to other cities around the country. 

“(Family Focus) has robust case management services that are specifically designed to help people who have the greatest and most complex needs get access to services,” Flax said. “It’s really hard (for new immigrants) to do it on their own.”

During public comment, community members voiced strong support for the center.

District 65 social worker Allie Harned said the center will help community organizations that currently work to welcome immigrants.

“We (community members) really are stretched thin,” Harned said. “I can say firsthand that they have already been helpful even though they’re not officially working with us.”

While residents who spoke generally supported aid for migrants, two residents expressed concerns that insufficient funds have been allocated to services for Evanston’s Black community.

Evanston resident Carlis Sutton said the Black population has been consistently ignored and hurt by the city, especially given Evanston’s history of housing discrimination. Sutton wanted to see more money allocated toward housing and infrastructure issues affecting Black residents.

Resident Tina Paden agreed the city needs to do more for its residents, but said she was not opposed to the welcoming center’s construction. 

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) said that while she intended to vote to approve the funding, she agreed with the concerns. 

“We need to do better for our (Black) residents,” Harris said. “I want to be very clear that I’ve heard that and share that.”

City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza highlighted Family Focus’ plan to incorporate community feedback when working on the welcoming center. She said she looks forward to sharing funding for the mutual benefit of the community.

Both officials detailed their experiences with Family Focus — Harris as a board member and Mendoza as a recipient of its services — and said they have faith in its ability to provide for the community.

“I’m here because of Family Focus,” Mendoza said. “Hopefully this funding will help do that for all our community members.”

Family Focus plans to open the welcoming center in January 2023 and hold a ribbon cutting ceremony in February. The organization said it would allocate $418,540 for program operations, $60,000 for start-up costs and $21,460 for project planning, design and community engagement. 

Alejandra Ibañez, former co-chair of Evanston’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, said she looks forward to the welcoming center opening.

“I’m a proud immigrant from Chile,” Ibañez said. “I came to this country at the tender age of five during my motherland’s military regime, and I wish my family had a welcome center like the one we are hoping to open in Evanston.”

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