Demand for social services in Evanston rises, spreads social workers thin


Daily file illustration by Meher Yeda

Both the demand for social workers and their responsibilities are expanding in recent years.

Alicia Tang, Reporter

This article contains mention of domestic violence.

Evanston Victim Advocates Kelli Nelson and Ariel Jackson handled over 1,500 social service assistance cases in 2022, from domestic violence to mental health.

Social workers across the city are facing rising demand for their services, and this isn’t just a local phenomenon. Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the employment of social workers to grow 12% from 2020 to 2030 — faster than the average projected growth of any other sector.

“On occasion, I would feel physically tired because we’re on call 24/7,” Nelson said. “We pour into other people’s cups, but oftentimes ours is being emptied at the same time… we do absorb a lot of other people’s own personal issues.” 

Nelson said the city’s services are for “any resident that is a victim of a crime.” The services also apply to non-criminal issues, such as finding shelter.

City social workers can also assist in connecting residents with housing, financial literacy training and employment help, Jackson said.

The demand accompanies the gradual expansion of Evanston social workers’ responsibilities beyond clinical work — they must also provide assistance with almost every aspect of life. 

“Demand for victim services is pretty high, due to our bureau being around for over 40 years.” Nelson said. “I think Ariel and I are used to juggling lots of balls in the air, so having a high caseload feels like second nature to us.” 

Nelson said the city is looking to hire a third advocate in response to heightened demand, though other community organizations also pitch in to help.

Jenette Sturges, Evanston Public Library’s communications and marketing manager, said the library’s social work program was among the first of its kind in the area emerging in response to what EPL saw as a community need.

“People come to the library looking for information, and they come to the library looking for connections,” Sturges said.

As the demand for social workers grows, Chicago Public Library branches have followed in EPL’s footsteps, she said.

EPL’s social worker dealt with cases involving “anxiety/depression related to world events, senior services, social isolation, housing, utility and rental assistance, access to mental health and substance abuse programs,” according to the 2022 EPL Library Board Packet. 

The worker had 240 encounters in a single quarter.

Though the program initially consisted of internships, it evolved into one full-time position in accordance to the demand. 

“We realized that the need was so great that the program kept growing,” Sturges said. “Everyone knows that the need has really outstripped the supply for these kinds of positions.”

The program was created in partnership with healthcare company Ascension, but concluded in 2022 at the end of the contract.

Though the program ended recently, Sturges said EPL is very committed to making sure there is a social worker located at their site in the future.

Nonprofit organizations that provide social support for those with mental illness, such as Impact Behavioral Health Partners, are also facing an increase in demand.

Lauren Warsaw, Impact’s clinical program manager, said there is around a six-month waitlist for their services. Many on the waitlist are in search of housing. 

According to Christopher Knoper, director of participant services at Impact, the actual wait might be even longer.

“When you’re a nonprofit, money is something we chronically don’t have,” Knoper said. “It’s difficult to find Master’s level workers that want to work in a nonprofit.”

Impact can also be affected by social workers’ burnout, he added. He said self care is essential in this line of work. 

Despite the emotionally and physically taxing work, Knoper said it is worth helping those in need. 

“It’s such a big life changing event for them, to know where your next meal is coming from and where you’re going to sleep at night,” Knoper said. “It’s very rewarding. It’s why we all do this.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Evanston social workers’ role in connecting residents with services like housing and financial literacy training. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AliciaTang623

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