The Connections for the Homeless office at 2121 Dewey Ave. (Google Maps)

It’s pretty hard to shelter in place when you have no place to shelter. That was the most recent crisis to pile onto the shoulders of those already facing multiple troubles … the homeless.

Tonight, Evanston City Council is scheduled to vote on $445,000 for housing, rent assistance, and case management services for those without homes, or those on the brink.

Update 11 p.m.: The aldermen approved the funding proposal this evening.

Even though the Illinois shelter in place order, which began in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, has been lifted, individuals experiencing homelessness continue to experience challenges.

Connections for the Homeless, a social service agency in the northern suburbs, has placed more than 200 individuals, including about 50 children, in an Evanston hotel, as a result of the COVID crisis.  

It’s hard to miss some of the homeless if you walk through downtown Evanston.  You’ll see people holding signs requesting help, or you’ll be asked for “spare change.”

But while those are the visible homeless, there are far more you don’t see.  Some are newly homeless, out of income due to the COVID pandemic.  Others are chronically homeless, dealing with problems such as mental illness and substance abuse, but trying to break the cycle.  Last year, Connections served 785 Evanston residents with a variety of services.  This year, that number is likely to skyrocket. 

Before COVID, Connections had a 24/7 shelter, and a daily drop-in facility for getting mail, showers, and clothing.  Those services remain, with increased demand.  The food pantry, Kouba says, usually has 250 visits per month. Last month, it was 450, an “enormous increase” thanks to coronavirus.

Connections has also added a 27-person Coronavirus Response Team, to help homeless individuals with various needs, such as trying to get out of the hotel and into permanent housing.

One reason for the hotel is it’s safer than a traditional shelter, with far less chance for the spread of coronavirus. The hotel provides a clean environment, while Connections works to find long-term housing.  Jennifer Kouba, Associate Development Director for Connections, says 30 people have been placed in permanent housing so far, with another 20 “highly vulnerable individuals” in line for placement as well.

Kouba says the goal is to have only 40 hotel residents needing permanent housing when the hotel contract concludes at the end of August.  However, she says more hotel space will be needed beyond that time.

The City assistance is actually federal dollars from the coronavirus-relief CARES Act, and will go to Connections. The money will help about 65 individuals or households with either hotel rooms, rent payments for low-income residents facing eviction, or case management services to help link the homeless to programs such as health care and job training.

Connections for the Homeless is also providing another connection, helping a sector of the economy which is also having a difficult time due to the coronavirus … restaurants.

Connections, which uses both government money and private donations for its programs, is buying meals from 30 Evanston area restaurants, to provide to the homeless individuals in the hotel.  One of those restaurants is Gigio’s Pizzeria.  Owner Dennis Clarkson says “they’re really doing an amazing thing,” helping both the homeless and the restaurants.  Gigio’s has delivered 75 pizzas a week, and lately, has added salads.

Kouba says the coronavirus pandemic has just made a long-standing Evanston issue even more of a problem.  The biggest challenge here is the “lack of affordable housing in our community.”  That means homelessness is a problem in good times. In bad times, it’s far worse.  And these are bad times.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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