Staff from Connections for the Homeless deliver means to their clients housed in local hotels during the pandemic lockdown. Photo from Connections

Evanston-based Connections for the Homeless will continue to pick up the costs of housing homeless people in local hotels despite recent notice the City is discontinuing its participation, a spokesperson for the group said today, May 28.

In a presentation at the May 26 City Council meeting, Connections for the Homeless Executive Director Betty Bogg told aldermen the organization, whose costs are now $25,000 a week and rising, “would love” if the City would continue to support hotel rooms through the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursement period, which runs until August.

The City has, however, served notice that it will discontinue its share of the funding on May 31, once Governor J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-at-home order is lifted. The organization and the hotels have been informed of the City’s position.

Interim City Manager Erika Storlie told the RoundTable, “The agreement that the City had with Connections whereby the City was funding the cost of the hotel stays for the homeless was always that the funding would continue as long as the Shelter in Place Executive Order was in effect.

“Because homeless residents did not have a place to shelter in during shelter in place, the City could fund it and seek reimbursement from FEMA as it was mitigating a direct threat to health, life and safety.  Existing shelters stopped operating because of the inability to separate individuals in congregate spaces.  This is an allowable expense to be reimbursed under FEMA regulations.  

“Once there is not a shelter in place order, we are no longer eligible to be reimbursed and if the City Council wanted to continue to provide this funding, they would have to identify a funding source for it and add it to the budget deficit that already exists.

“We have spent $700,000 on homeless housing since the Shelter in Place order was initiated.   FEMA will reimburse 75% of those costs and the remaining 25% of those costs will either be reimbursed through pass-through CARES act funding or CDBG, we haven’t yet determined it.”

Asked about the situation, Nia Tavoularis, Director of Development for Connections, said the group intends “to carry the costs of the hotel rooms for as long as we can and, hopefully, as long as it takes to find everyone in the hotels stable housing.”

Connections for the Homeless staff were already moving people off the streets and into local hotels during the pandemic when the City began talks with them on March 27.

Under the arrangement, the City picked up discounted costs for just over 100 rooms at local hotels, with Connections picking up the costs for 50-plus rooms beyond that.

Forty of the rooms the City procured at one of the hotels were reportedly available under an arrangement that would allow that establishment to pay off back taxes.

Evanston officials previously sought approval from FEMA to provide non-congregate housing for homeless populations, and will seek reimbursement for 75% of the expenses, Sarah Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants Administrator, reported in a memo at the May 11 City Council meeting.

In discussion, officials have suggested that while the City has filed an application with FEMA, there is no guarantee of reimbursement.

Responding to that concern at the May 11 meeting, Mayor Stephen Hagerty, noted that “the City has put all the documentation in place to make the best case, and that, frankly, other cities around this country have successfully made and gotten information back from FEMA indicating that, ‘Yes, this is reimbursable.’ “But like you” he told one alderman, “I never use the word guaranteed.”

In her presentation on May 26, Ms. Bogg expressed hope that the group and City “can build on the momentum of this successful public-private partnership that we forged during this crisis.

“The City has really stepped in in a big way; Connections is all staffed up [adding 27 new employees in recent weeks, a third of them Evanston residents] and ready to start moving people into housing; and what we need is for the City to direct some of the CDBG [federal Community Development Block Group funds] to rental assistance and to help us pay for those staff to support the transition to housing – that’s how we’ll get people out of those hotel rooms,” she said.

“We would like the continued support for hotel rooms through the end of the FEMA reimbursement period,” Ms. Bogg told Council members at the meeting. “We would love for you to consider designating some affordable-housing resources for a flexible housing pool.”

Ms. Bogg also noted the City is already working with the organization on creating a landlord network “where we can encourage landlords to participate and have flexibility regarding rental qualifications. Taking people with poor credit, taking people with criminal backgrounds, is very important for us to move people out of hotel rooms,” she emphasized.

During discussion, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked Ms. Bogg for a greater breakdown of which residents are Evanston-connected and those not served in the hotel program. Ms. Bogg had estimated earlier that about two-thirds of the people being housed are African American, a little under two thirds are connected to Evanston, “and of those we’ve been able to assess, about half of those folks have a disabling condition.” About 49% report having no income.

“Obviously our dollars are limited,” Ald. Fleming said. “Not that we want to have anyone on the street, but obviously we want to have our Evanston-connected folks, to make sure they’re housed.”

Ms. Bogg said when staff screened people for eligibility “we asked them what their connections to the Evanston community were,” including questions on whether they went to high school here, and whether they lived here until evicted.

“We did tell people who were coming from Chicago that they needed to return to Chicago to get hotel rooms there,” she told aldermen. “We have not told people specifically, ‘Oh, you’re from Skokie, you can’t come in this hotel’ — so we do have people from other municipalities as well.”

Ald. Fleming noted that the organization’s clientele was not normally as large as the 200-plus being served, and asked how many were totally new to homelessness, because of the pandemic.

Ms. Bogg noted that when Mayor Hagerty had first asked her whether Connections was seeing an increase, “there were about 100 people that we knew were homeless, and they were the first people that we put in hotels.

“But then there came this second wave that really caught me by surprise, which was people who were very precariously housed, and it’s really a story I keep hearing over and over again: ‘I was staying with my grandma at a nursing home and then the nursing home went into lockdown and I couldn’t stay there anymore.’ Or some family, you know, where it was okay [for the person] to stay, but it was 10 people in a two-bedroom house, and they just said like, ‘No, this isn’t working.’”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.