Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Connections for the Homeless honors staff, volunteers, participants at Milestone Celebration

Yong-Yu Huang/The Daily Northwestern
Coordinated Entry and Training Manager James Barnett speaks at the Milestone Celebration.

Several dozen people filed into the First Congregational Church of Evanston to attend Connections for the Homeless’ Milestone Celebration Wednesday evening. Starting at 6 p.m., the organization honored community members, volunteers and staff members, with a dinner provided afterwards by Chicken Shack.

The local nonprofit provides financial assistance, emergency shelter and guidance for people experiencing homelessness.  It also owns and operates the Margarita Inn, which it purchased in November 2023 after having run a homeless shelter there since 2020. 

Coordinated Entry and Training Manager James Barnett has spent six years at Connections, he said. 

“When I started, there were about 40 (people on) staff, and now we have 100,” Barnett said. “Our mission of ending homelessness, one person at a time, is not something we do alone.” 

The Milestone Celebration also recognized PEER Services, which provides substance use prevention and treatment services to Connections participants, as an Outstanding Community Partner. PEER Services comes onsite to the Margarita Inn to serve the Connections community. 

“They fought to disassemble barriers to participants receiving services,” Manager of Shelter Programs Keegan Olson said, “People don’t even have to leave the shelter to get connected on their journey to better care.”

Connections served about 5,000 people in 2023 and offered shelter to about 60 individuals and families at the Margarita Inn, Barnett said. Volunteers drop in every week to cook food, organize clothes in the clothing room, assist participants, and more. Last year, they gave over 10,000 hours to the organization, Barnett added. 

Volunteer Justin Travis was honored with the Lisa Todd Volunteer Award at the event. 

Director of Communications Eric Ruder said Connections’ Milestone Celebrations happen twice a year. Staff members introduced the honorees, many of whom spoke as they went up to the stage and received their awards. 

“We do this regularly because there’s always so many amazing stories of people who face big obstacles and then find a way to surmount them,” Ruder said. 

Medical Director Dr. Keith Boyd introduced Lamonte Cooper, who first encountered Connections through a friend and has been a resident at Margarita Inn for eight months. Previously, he slept on a train for around nine months, he said. 

In his speech, Cooper spoke about how Connections has helped with his health issues, including hypertension and an upcoming surgery.

“Hopefully, I’ll be off of the cane and get a job at some point,” Cooper said.

Loren Taylor (Medill ’81), another Margarita Inn resident, said he received a stage four prostate cancer diagnosis in November and lost his housing in January, about three weeks after he started chemotherapy. Taylor came to Margarita Inn in March, halfway through his treatment. 

Taylor said he was especially aware of the dangers of congregate shelters given his weakened immune system. He was worried about the recent measles outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I was doing everything that I could to stay out of congregate shelter,” Taylor said. “As large as my network was and how diligent they were at keeping me from having to sleep on the train, nobody was really in a position to help.” 

However, Taylor said he found the support he needed at Connections. He noted that Boyd has been a key part of his experiences at Connections, and Margarita Inn has been crucial to his health journey. 

Connections participant Fariba Panahi was also honored at the event for her “resilience, community, and generosity of spirit.” 

Panahi discussed her experience with the organization as an Afghan refugee, noting that Connections staff provided resources and connected her to essential services as she and her family settled into a new country. 

“Your commitment to helping families like mine rebuild our lives is nothing short of extraordinary,” Fariba said. “I have heard the saying, it takes a village to raise a child. Well, my family is living proof that a city like Evanston can raise a whole family.”

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