The coronavirus pandemic may be receding, and the economy may be improving, but the Evanston-based agency which assists the homeless says housing and financial troubles may actually peak for many individuals in a couple of years.
“I don’t see any near-term end to this,” says Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Connections for the Homeless.
Bogg says before the pandemic, Connections usually helped about 150-160 families a year with various types of housing assistance in Evanston and other northern suburbs. But in the 12-month period which ended in June, Bogg says the number was 531.
The Connections food pantry normally distributes 12,000 pounds of food a year. But the past 12 months saw 50,000 pounds going to help those in need.
“The pandemic has peeled back some of the veneer of how vulnerable people are,” Bogg says, with many families who had been “living on the brink” before COVID-19 ending up facing unemployment and potential eviction.
Evictions have been banned by both the State of Illinois and by the federal government since early in the pandemic. But both of those bans are scheduled to expire by the end of this month.
Bogg says it’s hard to predict what will happen when those bans are lifted, and perhaps, the immediate impact may not be as harsh as many expect. That’s because Connections has been focusing on eviction prevention. The agency uses a variety of funding sources to pay rent directly to landlords, so that tenants do not fall behind and have a huge repayment debt hanging over their heads.
Organizations representing property owners have been calling for an end to the eviction bans nationwide. The Illinois Realtors website has a quote posted from the group’s national chair which says, “For more than a year, Mom-and-Pop property owners have been pushed towards financial ruin as they upkeep their properties and pay their taxes with no income of their own.”
Bogg says she understands what small landlords are going through, and adds, “I don’t like the way landlords have been characterized as being eager to evict people.”
Before COVID, Bogg says her agency would often run out of its annual $400,000 in rental assistance funds after just seven months, due to high demand.
But in the past fiscal year, even though demand has increased, so has government funding, to $1.7 million, allowing Connections to help more people, and increase the housing assistance staff from the pre-COVID one person to five.
As long as there is enough money, Bogg says, Connections should be able to meet the demand for service. They key, of course, is how much longer the government aid will continue.
For example, last year Connections housed 200 people at a downtown hotel. Now, that’s down to 70-80 (at a different hotel). Rent subsidies through Connections have helped reduce the number. But there is still a waiting list, in part because there is not enough affordable housing in Evanston where people in the hotel can move to.
As for why there might be another homeless “surge” in a couple of years, Boggs says based on experience elsewhere after the 2008 recession, many people tried hard to pay off their debts over a year or two but ran out of money, particularly if there were car repairs or medical bills. So those individuals who had just emerged from a personal crisis fell back into one, and perhaps into homelessness once more.
While helping those experiencing homelessness is expensive, Bogg says, “the cost of doing nothing is so much higher.” It’s cheaper, she says, to get an individual or family into permanent housing than it is when you add up all the costs for police, fire, emergency medical care and shelters for those with nowhere to live.
Bogg also says there is at least one good thing to come out of the pandemic, namely the growing public understanding of the fine line between having food, shelter, and security and losing it all.
Bogg is also inspired by the resilience of those who are facing tough times. “The ability of people to hope for something better for themselves,” she says, “keeps me coming back to work.”
For information on emergency housing assistance, contact the Cook County Suburban Call Center, 877-426-6515.