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Note: Shortly before the ceremonial groundbreaking planned for early May, the RoundTable conducted the interview that forms the basis of this story.
Domestic violence flouts all borders – geographic, racial, social, economic, educational, gender, etc. For decades the solid haven in the maelstrom of such violence has been the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, offering immediate shelter and a path to a new, safer life.
Needs have increased and in additional pathways to security identified over the years, and last week the YWCA Evanston/North Shore broke ground on an $18 million renovation and expansion project – a ceremony delayed from early may by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What became the YWCA Evanston/North Shore began as the Evanston branch of the Chicago YWCA more than 80 years ago in First United Methodist Church. As the organization grew, the offices were relocated three times before the organization settled at 1215 Church St. – on the southwest corner of Church Street and Ridge Avenue.
Karen Singer, CEO of YWCA-Evanston/North Shore said by the late 1960s, “Our programs were growing – our programs were for women and girls and mentorship and housing. And our foremothers said, ‘O.K., we have to move again. … They had a vision and bought this property” at 1215 Church St.
The main building had been operated as a nursing home, and the YWCA converted it into housing for single women, started the pool program and relocated all the programming for women and girls.
“So we have been here for 50 years, and our footprint is pretty much exactly the same,” Ms. Singer told the RoundTable.
As Needs Grow, Programs Expand
Over the past 10 years, the organization has grown in terms of both needs and finances, Ms. Singer said. “So we have initiated or expanded 14 new programs impact areas. We have 70% more staff; we impact the lives of 40% more women and children and families. And along with all that growth has come a sustainable revenue base for growing our private donations and individual donations. … Our individual revenue line has grown by 300%.
“All the [program] growth was supported by a parallel growth in this much more robust revenue stream,” Ms. Singer said, and the physical space was constrained. “We have been stuffing staff and programs into a space that was designed for 50 years ago.”
Training and education programs, especially those in the area of economic empowerment – financial education and our job training – have accelerated strongly, as has their equity work, Ms. Singer said.
The confines of the present building allow the YWCA to provide what might be termed cramped confidentiality. Since there is only one training room, the domestic violence program is spread throughout the building. The shelter is filled every night.
In addition to the 11 rooms, which can accommodate a maximum of 32 people, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore has two cots available for emergency overnight shelter when emergency cases are brought in by the Evanston Police Department and all the other beds are occupied. The sleeping area is not a bedroom, said Ms. Singer, but it is private.
She also said because of the limited capacity, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore has to turn away nearly 800 women and children every year.
“[The shelter] is an old home where people live in a congregate manner. …While we have kept women and children safe for 35 years, it does not promote privacy, dignity and healing in the way we would want it.”
Julie McBratney,Communications Director at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore said, “The residents in the shelter have privacy and confidentiality.” She said, however, privacy is somewhat more difficult to come by when community members come there for classes, training or counseling.
She also noted that for several years the shelter has been open to men as well as to women escaping domestic violence. “Survivors of domestic violence” is their term, Ms. McBratney and Ms. Singer said, adding that 85% of those survivors are women.
The increasing needs and accelerated financial growth gave rise to a vision of expansion, Ms. Singer said. Consultation with the Illinois Facility Fund convinced the administrators that remaining in the present location with all their centralized services was the better option than relocating.
“Overwhelmingly, quantitatively and qualitatively and resoundingly, the decision was to stay put,” Ms. Singer said. “This corner is our legacy. It is deeply rooted in the community and the work we’ve been doing for 85 years.”
Threefold Expansion Plans
The visioning continued. A feasibility study by the Alford Group concluded that, given the present donors and the financial trajectory, the organization could raise $18 million for the project, Ms. Singer said.
The expansion plan entails constructing a new family support center, renovating the temporary shelter building known as the “tower” and refurbishing the pool and locker room area.
The YWCA Evanston/North Shore purchased the two properties immediately north of the present facility and razed the homes.
Phase I, the Family Support Center: The four-story family support center will connect to the current build via a glass-enclosed walkway.
The top two floors of the family support center will be an emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence and their children – 24 rooms with a capacity of 66, more than doubling the present capacity, Ms. Singer said.
There will be four family rooms with bathrooms; the remaining 20 will be single rooms with adjoining doors.
The present facility offers no flexibility in room size. Ms. Singer said, “If we get a call from a woman tonight, and she has a child, and the only room we have is with four beds, we will give her that room. But, if tomorrow night we get a call from a woman with three children, we have to turn her away – because the rooms have no way to expand or contract, and we can’t mix families.”
Amenities to help ease the fright and strangeness for the survivors of domestic violence in this emergency shelter will be a playground, meditation center and a garden.
Like the current shelter, the family support center will house for up to 90 days survivors and their children leaving an abusive situation. Because the new center will be “so much more trauma-informed, [survivors] will be able to stay longer if they are putting in place the next steps.”
Administrative offices will occupy the second floor, and the first floor will house private, community-based services for women and children.
“So now we’ll be able to expand our community-based work to be able to work with kids and to work with kids and moms together. And to expand the numbers of moms we’re able to work with,” Ms. Singer said.
Phase II, the Tower Renovations: The second phase is to completely renovate the tower. Five state-of-the-art classrooms on the upper levels will accommodate the classes in financial and economic empowerment and equity training. With flexible spacing, “the classrooms can be combined to create bigger spaces,” said Ms. McBratney.
Phase III, the Aquatics Area: “The aquatics center is probably the smallest part of the renovation, but we’ll be building family changing rooms and increasing the light and the ventilating and renovating the locker rooms,” Ms. Singer said.
The entrance to the main building will be reconfigured but still be from Church Street, and the number of parking spaces increased by 40%. The pool and locker rooms will stay where they are.
“The family support center will be built, then we’ll take down the house; then we’ll move the residents in there, take the staff in there, and then we’ll renovate this building.”
So far the YWCA Evanston/North Shore has raised a total of $16.6 million toward its funding goal of $18.5 million for the project. The project is estimated to be completed next year.