Evanston officials are moving forward on establishing a relief fund for undocumented residents who may not qualify for General or Emergency Assistance under current requirements.

At the Nov. 2 Human Services Committee meeting, aldermen unanimously backed a staff recommendation that the City to establish a “Community Member Relief Fund,” which would provide emergency assistance through the City’s General Assistance office to undocumented Evanston residents.

The proposal would next go to the full City Council for review and possible approval.

The City has long-standing programs through General and Emergency Assistance that are mandated by the State, said Ike Ogbo, the City’s Director of Health and Human Services, and Indira Perkins, the City’s Human Services Manager, in a memo to the Committee.

“These programs have set guidelines and are funded by tax dollars to provide assistance to Evanston residents with low income and those with emergency needs,” they said.

To qualify for the programs, though, a resident has to meet a number of requirements, they said, “such as being income eligible, having legal status, ineligible for any cash assistance program, have a Social Security number and other determining factors.

“Due to these set guidelines and restrictions,” the officials wrote, “our Evanston residents who are undocumented are excluded and do not qualify for these programs that will provide access to assistance in emergency or life-threatening situations.”

The proposed program, then, is designed for undocumented Evanston residents who cannot qualify for General or Emergency assistance but who are in need of rental, utility and other emergency assistance, officials said.

The name of the program would be called the “Community Member Relief Fund,” they said. Due to the limitations of using tax funds, officials said, the program is best suited to be funded through donations instead.

At the meeting, held virtually due to social dis constraints, several advocates for the local Latinx community spoke to the need for the program.

Rebeca Mendoza, a Board member for the Evanston Coalition for Latino Residents for eight years, said the group had been urging City officials as well as representatives of large institutions in Evanston to provide specific resources and support to the Evanston Latinx and Spanish-speaking community.

She said the need was felt acutely when, two months into the pandemic, the positivity rate for the local Latino community had reached 18.3%; that demographic is roughly 11.8% of the City’s population.

At that time, Ms. Mendoza said, her group found “that many community members were unable to find resources in Spanish to help them understand the terrifying unfolding events.” She said they also ran up against strict requirements to apply for assistance.

“Due to the City’s historical under-investment in the Latinx  community and outreach in the building of relationships,” she said, “there’s a general sense of distrust, in addition to fears of public charge by our community of undocumented folks, immigrants and mixed status residents, in order to find support and access for these resources.”

Many of the residents in need reached out to her organization, seeking information about resources and how to obtain General Assistance.

She told Committee members that language access issues at the City initially caused delays for the group in relaying critical information to Spanish-speaking residents.

With short-term assistance from the Evanston Community Foundation, though, she said “we were able to hire a community outreach person to assist with things such as applying for general assistance, housing assistance registration for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, and health care.”

As “we are limited in our capacity to fill the many needs of this population,” she told aldermen, the group supports the City “making the service hopefully available to undocumented residents.” Some of these people are longtime residents, having lived here for 20-plus years, she said.

Stephanie Mendoza, a community outreach organizer for Evanston Latinos, also spoke to the need for the program.

Ms. Mendoza told Committee members that she also works at Connections for the Homeless and said that during the pandemic “we’ve seen increased demands for services among undocumented residents.”

In some instances, they have reached out to the City to access General Assistance relief or Emergency Assistance, she said, “but we found it’s a barrier to the undocumented family due to the requirement of a Social Security number.

“I hope the Committee can support this fund. You know, we have many undocumented residents here in Evanston that come from many different countries and speak many languages and, as a welcoming city, I think having this fund will fully embrace people,” helping Evanston be “the welcoming City that it strives to be for all people.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.