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One of the most frightening things about homelessness is that it can be one financial disaster away. An unplanned expense, such as an unexpected car repair or a medical emergency, can push a family from its home. Nia Tavoularis, Director of Development for Connections, said a 2016 story in Forbes reported that more than 60% of the people in this country “don’t have the resources to weather an unexpected $500 setback. When people are living so close to the edge, it’s hard to bring them back,” she said.
Created in 1984 as a shelter only, Connections now provides shelter, rental assistance, and other supportive services to help transition individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness into stable living environments.
Data from Connections shows that last year the organization served 871 individuals, preventing 109 families from losing their homes, helping 239 people obtain or maintain stable housing, and providing 5,837 nights of shelter for 90 men at Hilda’s Place, the shelter at 1458 Chicago Ave.
This year, a little more than two years into her tenure as Executive Director of Connections, Betty Bogg and the Connections board have crafted a new mission statement and agreed on a strategic plan to expand and deepen their services. The mission statement, “We serve and catalyze our community to end homelessness one person at a time” captures “how we engage the community in this work,” said Ms. Tavoularis. “We’re not doing this alone. We have about 1,300 volunteers each year.”
The board anticipates that the plan will include more homelessness prevention, an expansion of the shelter, ways to increase the availability of long-term housing, health-care and drop-in services, advocacy, and rigorous impact measures.
Hilda’s Place, the shelter that marked the beginning of Connections, is probably the organization’s best-known feature. Volunteers have the opportunity to talk with residents and many find the experience transformative, Ms. Bogg said. Other programs may not be so well known to the community at large, because they do not lend themselves to short-term volunteering but instead focus on stable housing.
Tenant Based Rental Assistance (TBRA), a program administered by Connections in partnership with the City of Evanston offering two years of assistance for families, is designed to keep children in the school district. “Stabilizing families really has an impact on the children’s academics,” Ms. Tavoularis said. “Keeping a family from going off the cliff of homelessness prevents the trauma of eviction and moving.” Prevention is also economically efficient; rental assistance can be less costly than the eviction process, she added.
Connections also took over Our House, a home for homeless Evanston youth – now with eight participants – that grew, as Connections itself did, out of community concern for the homeless.
Advocacy and Prevention
The new plan calls for integrating advocacy programming. As Manager of Advocacy, Sue Loellbach, a long-time staff member of Connections, will be a leavening agent for affordable housing and homelessness prevention. She began this work several months ago.
“Our success with the Albion project was our first pay-off,” Ms. Boggs said. Meetings with the developer resulted in 15 on-site affordable units, when the developer had originally proposed only two and a $3 million contribution to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.
“Our advocacy is not project-based,” Ms. Tavoularis said. “Connections never advocates for or against any project” but for affordable housing.
Connections also plans to restore its drop-in services to five days per week and provide more immediate health-care on-site. The organization was able to increase the nurse practitioner’s position to full-time on Dec. 25 of last year – “a Christmas present to ourselves,” Ms. Bogg said. Living on the street takes a toll on the body, and the nurse practitioner can spot injuries or damage from chronic illnesses and perhaps convince the client to accept medical help. Mental health services are also in the offing, as Connections plans to hire a mental health specialist. A number of people living on the street have mental health or substance abuse problems, or both. Thirty-four percent of Connections 871 clients last year had a mental or physical disability.
Case managers coordinate services for clients, Ms. Bogg said. They keep in touch with families; attend critical meetings with teachers – such as meeting for Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children. The strategic plan calls for expanding the case management staff to provide even more services. “
Housing remains key. The plan calls for two new positions: a Housing Locator to develop relationship with landlords and help clients find suitable housing and a Prevention/Rapid Rehousing specialist.
“Our goal is to try to get people housed,” Ms. Bogg said. “We have to keep being here and being present, so when the problems occur, we’re able to take steps.”
Eighteen months ago, Connections was in no position to have such an ambitious plan. “We were still reeling from massive layoffs in 2015 – nine people- because of the State budget crisis. Our line of credit was extended; we had a personal loan out from a board member, and seven days of cash in the bank. That’s how close we were to our own cliff,” said Ms. Tavoularis.
Strategic budgeting, deliberate fund-raising, a generous board of directors, and two major challenge grants have helped put Connections in the position to expand its personnel and services. Of last year’s revenue of $3.2 million 59% came from public and 39% from private contributions.
Being able to demonstrate the impact of their efforts has a dual purpose, Ms. Bogg said. “It’s for ourselves and to be able to show our partners and donors that their contributions are effective.”
By institutionalizing advocacy, increasing services in case management and health care, and expanding efforts to find appropriate housing quickly for their clients, Connections officials feel they can engage the community in their effort to end homelessness.
“Community engagement and community catalyzation are in our DNA,” said Ms. Tavoularis
Most people have a safety net in their life of family and friends that when something happens, an emergency, an unexpected hurdle or even a bad decision, that safety net can catch the person and hold them until they can get back on their feet. At Connections, we serve as a safety net for the people who don’t have one. “