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He admits that he smells of alcohol all day, and if he stopped drinking, he would get the shakes. At night, when he sleeps outside, he is afraid when he hears the sound of gun shots or people arguing. He was once “scared to death by a raccoon.” Times like that are when he drinks the most, so he can pass out and escape the ever-present fear of trouble.
Peter (not his real name) lives in Evanston, but he does not have a place to live. He says he is “house-less, not home-less – there’s a difference. … The word homeless has so much intention behind it that I choose not to use it, because home is where the heart is. When I’m standing around with a group of guys drinking beer and talking all kinds of s—, our hearts are there at that moment.
“Out on the street, there are people who love you no matter what. You’re not alone. I have a lot of friends. I had a friend from [a nearby town]. His father kicked him out, and he was living in his car. He created altercations with every single person who looked at him. But I was gentle with him. He said to me, ‘I love you, man. You seem like the happiest homeless dude.’ I told him, ‘It’s not as bad as you think it is.’”
Peter has lived in Evanston off and on since fifth grade. He says his mother left the family when he was a teenager, and then his step-father “kicked them all out.” He and his siblings lived in houses where there were drugs and prostitution and “worse things, things that people don’t want to hear about.”
Peter says that it is not that he does not want to work. He likes to talk to people, and he has worked at cafes and restaurants. He says, “I worked as a line cook, but I didn’t like people yelling at me. I’d rather not have a steady job than put up with that.” Currently he does odd jobs when he can find them.
Over the years, various organizations, churches, and synagogues in Evanston—as well as the City itself—have been working hard to find ways to help the homeless, and they keep adding to and improving what they offer. Connections for the Homeless provides an array of services and referrals as well as a 20-bed shelter at Hilda’s Place for males only and supportive housing for 30 disabled adults and 40 families. Connections’ trauma-informed case management services include help with public benefits, affordable housing and job search support, as well as referrals for medical, mental health, and legal services. To help homeless people meet basic needs, Connections operates a drop-in center with access to food, clothes, showers, computers, and telephones.
Our House is a two-year-old Connections program for young men ages 18-24, offering supportive housing that combines a rental subsidy with comprehensive case management and supportive services. The result of a concerted effort among several organizations, Our House came together with the support of the Evanston Community Foundation, Curt’s Café, the Unitarian Church of Evanston, St. Athanasius Church, Whole Foods, The Moran Center, and Bridges to Home, among others.
Family Promise North Shore houses families in host churches and synagogues overnight and operates a day center to provide all the families’ other needs, such as job search support for parents, tutoring for children, and transportation to and from host churches, school, and work. Family Promise aims to keep families together and uses a holistic, individualized approach to return families to financial stability. At present, Family Promises helps 15 families a year, usually four families at a time for an average of 90 days.
For families fleeing domestic violence, Mary Lou’s place, a shelter of the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore, is a 32-bed facility for survivors and their children. Per the YWCA website, “[d]uring their stay, advocates and children’s counselors provide daily and individual group counseling sessions, parent/child workshops, and specialized workshops, such as health education, job readiness, and financial literacy.”
Interfaith Action Evanston (IAE) coordinates Evanston’s churches and synagogues to provide food and shelter to the hungry and homeless on the North Shore. On a rotating basis, more than a dozen churches and synagogues offer soup kitchens and daytime shelter, and six of them take turns offering much needed overnight shelter in the frigid winter months. In partnership with the City of Evanston and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, IAE distributes produce from its Producemobile at the Robert Crown Center every second Tuesday of the month.
As a daytime hub for many among the homeless population, the Evanston Public Library hired a licensed clinical social worker earlier this year to help meet the needs of the homeless community as well as the mentally ill, and those who find themselves in crisis. Programming at the library reflects this commitment.
On Aug. 1, an outreach specialist from the Evanston Veterans Center was on hand at the Library to help veterans. Twice this month, the library is hosting Legal Assistance Foundation attorneys and paralegals for Ready2Work workshops. They provide legal assistance to remove roadblocks to employment, including wage theft, identity theft, juvenile expungement, occupational licensing, driver’s license issues, access to transportation and childcare. Several times in August, Connections for the Homeless is offering intake and on-site assistance to persons in need. And there are also regular sessions to help people enroll in the Affordable Care Act, aptly named the “Affordable Care Act Navigator.”
Even all these programs are not enough. There is wide agreement that many more beds and services are needed, as well as more affordable housing.
Tracy Lawson McKeithen, Network Director of Family Promise Chicago North Shore, says, “There is a much greater need for housing for families in Evanston.” Ms. McKeithen says she has to turn away “families who are sleeping in their cars in parking lots” or living in overcrowded conditions to get by.
Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy for Connections, says, “The need is huge…HUD’s focus on the chronically homeless and vets, the most vulnerable living on the street” has had an impact on that demographic, but she says there is not enough affordable housing or programs for “the number of people who are poor and can’t afford housing and are doubled up. That’s why we’re really focusing on affordable housing. We know what solves homelessness – it’s housing. There just isn’t enough – that’s what we need.”
Among those who need services, there are different reasons for not obtaining them. Some are not eligible for existing programs. Others may be too independent, or too substance dependent, or otherwise unable to follow through on the steps it takes to establish eligibility.
Ms. Loellbach says, “Some [homeless] people don’t cooperate to get their IDs.” Connections staff work on forming relationships with the homeless people who need services and encourage them each step of the way, but they “get frustrated at the process you have to go through to have a lease or get benefits.” To get these benefits, Ms. Loellbach says, “you have to get a Social Security card, and to get a Social Security card you need a birth certificate, and to get a birth certificate, you have to get school records. It’s a big bureaucratic process.”
“Social workers will go with people who need it – it’s one of the main things they do,” says Ms. Loellbach. But during the three hour-wait at the Social Security office, the homeless person is worried about figuring out where he or she is going to sleep at night. There are the problems of which address to send it to, and then the wait for the mail to come, and then the search for the person, who has no phone and who moves around a lot. “It’s a very difficult and cumbersome case management situation and requires a long span of intention,” she said. “When someone gets older and tired of living outside, that’s when people decide to follow through.”
Peter says he does not like to go to the shelters because “they provide you with resources, but they keep people where they want them to stay.” Sometimes he will be invited to stay at a friend’s home for a while, to sleep on the couch for a week, or even for months at a time. Other times, he sleeps outside wherever he can find a place that feels safe.
Peter admits he can get very depressed at times and has attempted suicide twice. Earlier in his life, he had tried various drugs, but did not like them. Once, he said, he quit drinking for a month and a half to please his girlfriend, but the relationship did not last. Three weeks ago he was cut by a rusty pipe, but he was not able to get a tetanus shot. When he is injured, he “just lets things heal.”
And yet, healing is something Peter likes to do for other people. His grandmother knew many home remedies that, he says, are very effective. When one of his friends is ill, he advises a cure using one of her recipes. And he likes to check back in with them later, to see how they are doing.
He also finds pleasure in talking to people, especially old people. “They don’t expect anyone to talk to them. The other day, I was sitting on a bench, and an old man came by and asked if it was okay to sit next to me. I said, ‘Sure.’ And I listened to him talk….That day I felt like I had accomplished something, I made that old man happy.”
Borrowing a quote from the late musician Prince, he says, “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.” But Peter adds one word: “together.”