Jennifer Kouba says that the community can end homelessness in Evanston. The pandemic has proved it is possible.

Ms. Kouba is the Associate Director for Development at Connections for the Homeless, where the mission statement is to end homelessness one person at a time. To illustrate what is possible, she pointed to 15 communities around the country that have ended veteran homelessness, chronic homelessness, or both, using a methodology called Built for Zero, developed by Community Solutions.

A community has successfully ended homelessness when it achieves “functional zero,” so that any individual event is “rare, brief, and non-recurring.” The MacArthur Foundation recently awarded Community Solutions $100 million to expand Built for Zero.

Two of the 15 communities that have reached functional zero are in Illinois. Rockford/Winnebago and Boone counties ended veteran homelessness in December 2015 and ended chronic homelessness in January 2017. Lake County ended veteran homelessness in December 2018.

Ms. Kouba says, “The way to end homelessness is to give people homes” and says “Housing First” is considered a best practice internationally. “Housing is the baseline that you build on,” she said.

Larry Donoghue, Chair of the Evanston Housing and Homelessness Commission, agrees. “The basic idea is, with substantial government funding, move people into stable housing as quickly as possible, with no barriers, such as banning drug use. That can be their platform for working on improving their lives – whether to get a job, maintain a job, schooling. It is so important.”

An unexpected result of the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to put Housing First to the test in Evanston. The pandemic forced Connections to change its overnight operations, almost overnight. The organization had to close Hilda’s Place, the 18-bed transitional shelter for men in the basement of Lake Street Church, because the space is too limited to allow for social distancing.

Fortunately, said Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy at Connections, “decision-makers that hold the money decided that it was important for people who are homeless to shelter during the pandemic.” 

Mr. Donoghue points to the “extraordinary effort of the housing staff at the City to obtain funding [from the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to move homeless people into the Margarita Inn and other local hotels.” The confluence of financial support and a surplus of available hotel rooms meant that Connections has been able to safely house a few hundred people over the past year. They also provide three meals a day and access to services from a broad network of partner organizations. 

Ms. Kouba said at the peak, there were 230 people temporarily housed at area hotels. In contrast to overnight shelter, she said that when people are “able to shelter 24-hours a day, with access to meals, it gives them the stability they need to work toward their housing goals.” She quoted one colleague who noticed people’s renewed commitment and hope once they have a roof over their heads and a key to a door that is their own.

A visiting nurse noted the tremendous improvements in a resident’s physical health once the individual moved from sleeping on the trains to a room with a shower.

At a recent event, Mickey, a recently re-housed Connections client, said the stay in the hotel provided him with the stability he needed to focus on his job search. “It gave me a sense to be able to rest when I needed to and look for a job when I had to – but had I been out on the street, I may not have had the push to do that.” Mickey found a job and now lives in an affordable apartment in Evanston that he found with Connections’ support.

Ms. Loellbach says one chronically homeless person living on the streets costs the community about $50,000 a year in emergency room visits, hospitalization, shelter stays, and other services.  In contrast, she says, “To give somebody housing costs between $18,000 and $24,000 a year, or less than half. And, while people are in that housing, they typically show improvements in physical and mental health, and their ability to hold a job. Kids do better in school. All of the social services in Evanston work better when their clients have stable housing. Not only does it cost less, you’re actually giving people a foundation from which they can build their potential.”

Between March 2020 and March 2021, Connections expanded its services significantly, doubling the housing program and helping more than 500 people move into permanent supportive housing units. The organization also expanded their eviction-prevention work, allowing more than 1,200 people to stay in their homes.

Moreover, Ms. Kouba notes, the money for hotel rooms and meals represents “an investment of well over $5 million back into the community,” adding, “There’s so much that can be done when we all work together. To be able to partner with the business community in this way has been inspiring and mutually beneficial and that’s how communities should work.”

Mr. Donoghue said, “The partnership between Connections and the Margarita Inn, between the private hotel, the nonprofit, and the City, showed that when we are working as partners, we can do a lot to reduce homelessness. It took a crisis to show us that we can accomplish that. I am hopeful that we can build on that. It is no longer an issue that seems 10 years off.”

Ms. Kouba says a fixed year-round shelter is a more sustainable solution than hotel rooms and adds that advocacy, community buy-in, and affordable housing are essential elements of the solution.

Ms. Loellbach agrees. “All the tools are there, and the money could be made available, and we even know what to do.” The challenge, she says, is that “There seem to be a lot of people who think that affordable housing is a good thing as long as it doesn’t change anything,” noting, “there is definitely resistance to increasing density in the community.”

She added, “I’m more and more struck by how much the American perspective on housing is still influenced by this 1950s American Dream of the white nuclear family in a single-family home with a white picket fence. When people are talking about community character, that’s what they’re talking about. That propaganda that was perpetrated in the 1950s was really effective.”

In separate conversations, Ms. Loellbach, Mr. Donoghue, and Mayor-elect Daniel Biss each spoke about the need for a comprehensive audit of the City’s zoning laws and the importance of using an equity lens. Mayor-elect Biss said, “A comprehensive overhaul of the zoning code, based upon prioritization of the values of affordability and equity, will result in taking a hard look at a lot of different exclusionary rules on the books.”

Mr. Donoghue noted that, “Zoning has an enormous impact in maintaining segregation. Minneapolis and Portland have eliminated single family zoning.”

Connections’ efforts over the past year suggest that Housing First is an effective model for Evanston. It remains to be seen if the organization can maintain the momentum established during the pandemic to align the resources, political will, and community buy-in to end homelessness in Evanston.