Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Signs of homelessness in a community can be as visible as lines at shelters and soup kitchens, as subtle as a person with too many coats and bags lingering in a warm library on a cold night, or as lonely as the floor or couch of a friend or family member. Almost unnoticed by the undiscerning eye are those scraping by, just a paycheck away from losing their homes.

The long economic downturn, unemployment and unanticipated – or unaffordable – medical expenses have taken the safety net away from many.

Social service agencies that help those who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness in Evanston, already stretched thin by the state’s budget problems, are meeting greater needs with fewer dollars.

State and County Efforts

At the Dec. 3 meeting of the Evanston Coalition on Homelessness, State Senator Jeffrey Schoenberg and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin described efforts at the state and county levels to address unemployment and high medical costs, two of the causes, they said, of homelessness.

Mr. Suffredin said he thought efforts should be concentrated around attracting retail jobs. “People who do not have financial resources have lost their jobs,” leaving many at risk of becoming homeless.

He said he is working to set up more intense mediation in foreclosure cases but added, “Let’s be realistic. We can mediate a loan payment from $500 to $200 [per month], but if [the homeowners] don’t have a job, they’re not going to pay that $200. I believe what we have to do is keep retail jobs.” Retail jobs, he said, keep employment local and yield sales taxes.

Jackie Grossman of Interfaith Housing of the Northern Suburbs said, “I worry about people in retail jobs. There are no benefits and no security. I’m not sure this is where the emphasis should be.” She said she sees a need to lower taxes. “People who work who still have houses need to keep their taxes down, she said.

Mr. Suffredin said, “We need a job strategy; the stimulus package did not generate jobs for people who need jobs.”

In addition, he said, Cook County is dependent upon the state for income.

“As the state government has to contract, state grants will diminish or disappear completely. This causes a push-back on subordinate governments [such as counties and municipalities],” Mr. Suffredin said.

Mr. Schoenberg offered little hope that help would come from the state. “The prospect is increasingly bleak for the coming years, precisely at a time when problems and demands are increasing,” he said. “[Income and sales] tax revenue are significantly down. … People don’t have money, and with unemployment high – at about 11 percent – they’re not spending much. … We should know that even though the economy is getting better, we should have a delayed realization [of that] in Illinois,” he added.

Mr. Schoenberg said he sees two local housing challenges: alleviating homelessness and keeping people in their homes.

Alliance member Jessie MacDonald noted that the state had cut 80 percent of the funding for one of the programs at Connections, which helps homeless families as well as those at risk of homelessness. She also said, “Twelve major studies have analyzed costs and benefits of keeping people in their homes versus having them on the street. It costs $40,000 a year to keep a person on the street [support services, emergency medical care, etc.] and $14,000 to keep a person in supportive housing. … The state saved about $8 million [with such funding cuts] but the cost to local communities could be from $30 million to $100 million.”

Melba Swoyer, co-chair of the Evanston Alliance on Homelessness, noted that Illinois has about 30,000 people in institutions for mental disease (IMDs), which some have termed “warehouses.”

“People stay in IMDs year after year with no progress and no connection to the community.” In addition, she said, “It’s so expensive to house people in IMDs. … They cost about ten times as much as supportive housing [sometimes called community-based housing].” She asked whether the senator would support funding for supportive housing.

Mr. Schoenberg said he agreed that the state should fund supportive housing to a greater degree but added, “As long as we make a [funding] decision on an annual basis, it keeps the status quo [more funding for the larger IMDs and less for community-based housing].” He said he would like for the state to have a three-year plan to increase the amount of community-based housing for the mentally ill and asked for help from anyone “who wants to work with me to work on a multi-year plan to talk about funding supportive housing and reduce IMDs.”

Turning to the elephant in almost any political-discussion room, Messrs. Schoenberg and Suffredin discussed some of the problems of health care.

Both said treating patients for non-emergencies in a hospital emergency room is the most expensive form of medical care. Since the City ceased several direct-care programs more than two years ago, Evanstonians do not have access to a local public clinic.

Access in Howard Street in Chicago accepts low-income patients, and Mr. Suffredin and Mr. Schoenberg have each been working to get nearby clinics certified as FQHCs – federally qualified health clinics. This qualification would allow a clinic to apply for federal funding for some types of health care.

Lean times call for funding cuts. Mr. Schoenberg said, “We have not just to work harder but work smarter.”

Feeling the Heat (or Not), Evanston Agencies Deal With Greater Needs

As winter intensifies and the state budget languishes in Undecided Land, local agencies that work with homeless people and those at risk of homelessness are stretching their budgets to keep up with increased needs and avoid internal layoffs.

A Warm Bed and a Good Meal

At the shelter for battered women and their children operated by the Evanston/North Shore YWCA, Executive Director Karen Singer says she and her staff continue to do more with less.

“”We are seeing about an 18 percent increase in our crisis calls,”” she said, “”and between August and October we were turning away about 40 women per month at the court advocacy program at the Skokie court house.

The state is behind about $150,000 promised over the last five months,”” Ms. Singer said. “”This poses an enormous burden on our cash flow and our ability to keep up.”” She added that she and others are “”anxious about the state’s upcoming budget. … Rumors are that there won’t be a real budget until after the November election.””

Paul Selden, executive director of Connections, which offers several programs to address homelessness, said, “”In the last four or five years, the state has funded our Prevention program with about $500,000 annually. This is a pass-through – from us to low-income people or to the banks. Ordinarily we can help about 300 households. This year, the funding was cut, and even though we have a contract [with the state] for $120,000 of funds, nothing has come from the state. This is a blow to the community. We’ll be able to help about 60 families, but there are a lot of households that could have been helped.””

Jessie McDonald, who helps coordinate the Wednesday soup kitchen at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, said the numbers of diners there have increased. “”We used to see 90-95 persons, but now it’s up to about 130. We see people who are marginally making it and a lot more homeless people, people who need the food,”” she said.