Catherine Leonard, left, vice president of Connections’ board of directors, talks with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senator Dick Durbin.

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Senator Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky visited Connections for the Homeless, 1458 Chicago Ave., on Feb. 5 and received an update on the agency’s challenges in addressing the needs of homeless persons in light of the recession.

Catherine Leonard, a board member and vice-president of Connections, told Senator Durbin that the State cut 70 percent of the agency’s budget used for preventative programs.

“While on the outside we may look like a homeless shelter, and that’s certainly part of what we do, most of our budget, we hope, goes to preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. The face of homelessness is changing because of the economy. So the danger has risen at the same time our budget for it has dropped,” she said.

Henry Colquitt, Coordinator of Health and Program Services, said Connections is serving twice as many people as it was two years ago when Senator Durbin last visited the agency. He said Connections is serving more young adults, ages 19-27, who are homeless. The number of older adults being served is about the same, he said.

Sarah Cohen said Connections is also serving more families. Before, she said, Connections served a lot single-parent families. Now they are serving more families with two breadwinners who have lost their jobs. “It’s a struggle to find a place for people to stay on an emergency basis at night,” she said.

Ms. Leonard said a change in focus has more intense services for fewer people. “We’re trying to do more for fewer people – better. We’re trying to treat the whole person. We try to help them get a job; we’re going to try to help them get the health services they need; we’re going to help single mothers raise their children. …
We have this multi-faceted organization, and the economy is feeding it. We’re seeing people who need all these services,” she said.

“The model is you get someone in housing first,” said Reverend David P. Jones, director of development, “and then you begin to deal with all these other issues. We’re dealing with a lot more people now who are housed than are homeless, when three years ago it was the opposite. There are 130 people that we’ve gotten into housing whom we’re still dealing with through case management. That seems to be the model that’s most effective.”

Eric Dougal, employment coordinator, said Connections has been working with local agencies to help people develop job-readiness skills. He said they are trying to get people back into the mode of work as a first step and then get them into more traditional permanent employment.

Rev. Jones said, “We think one of the best investments is employment. We’re looking for money everywhere that supports that. That’s what breaks the cycle.”

Four people who participated in Connections’ programs spoke about some of the challenges they face. Each one praised the staff. “The volunteers here, the staff, it’s a blessing,” one said.

Sen. Durbin and Rep. Schakowsky said they would take back to Washington, D.C. all they learned during their visit.