This is part two of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
As Evanstonians continue to discuss beachfront accessibility, housing reparations and racial justice, it is important to consider the challenges encountered by Evanston’s housing-insecure population – which includes those who are homeless as well as those who experience high housing costs in proportion to income, poor housing quality, overcrowding or unstable neighborhoods.
In 2021, the City of Evanston estimated that 327 residents were homeless and 25% of households who rent in the City faced eviction. The situation is far worse in Chicago, where in 2018, there were an estimated 76,998 homeless Chicagoans. Of these, 61% identified as Black or African American. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened housing insecurity despite efforts such as the Illinois eviction moratorium, which was recently extended to Oct. 3. When it ends, the number who are housing insecure is expected to go up.
We Are Water Evanston interviewed 13 housing-insecure residents in 2020 about their relationship with drinking water and Lake Michigan. We were introduced to our interviewees through Connections for the Homeless and Family Promise Chicago North Shore, prominent Evanston-based agencies serving unhoused and housing-insecure individuals and families in Evanston and neighboring communities.
Importance of lakefront access
Open access to public spaces such as the lakefront was very important to the housing-insecure participants we interviewed. Indeed, many told us they moved from various areas of Chicago to Evanston to not only access more comprehensive housing services in a “safer” city, but also to be closer to Lake Michigan.
One participant explained, “I just like to look at the water. It’s endless. It’s like a sea. It’s relaxing.” Others shared how sitting by the lake offered “peace of mind.” Many emphasized the importance of being near the lake for their mental health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many were forced to shelter in place in hotel rooms like those arranged at the Hilton Orrington Hotel by Connections.
One interviewee shared with us the spiritual nature of the lake: “It’s powerful. Don’t you see? It’s like it’s talking to you sometimes!”
When asked about the importance of living by the lake, one participant stated, “If they gave me a choice to move way out somewhere, like, you know, like, ain’t no lake and stuff like that, then I’d need somewhere you can walk around. … I like to look at the waves and the rocks. Feel that cool breeze. Ain’t nothing better than that.”
Barriers to access
The roots of Chicagoland’s housing crisis lie in the area’s deeply segregated history and continued implementation of racist housing policies such as redlining (denial of mortgage loans and insurance to residents in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color) and restrictive zoning. Black, Hispanic and low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicagoland continue to face disinvestment, which often presents itself through a diminished quality of City services and poor maintenance of recreational infrastructure and public spaces like parks and lakefronts.
We found that despite the significance of the lake to many participants, lake access for those who are housing insecure is complicated by a variety of barriers. These include judgement from wealthier Evanstonians, negative experiences with law enforcement and inaccessibility for those with disabilities.
For example, one participant described the judgement he experiences from other Evanstonians: “It’s just a lot of people, suburban people around, six figures, seven figures, and they have their prejudiced views down, so they see somebody like me or look like me to kind of, you know, shy away.” Describing people’s physical reaction to him, he signaled a distance with his hands, saying, “They just be all the way over there. And you know, it’s kind of real big gap.”
In an interview with We are Water, Sue Loellbach, Director of Advocacy at Connections for the Homeless, told us that “in theory, people are very supportive of trying to help a person in need. But if that need crosses a boundary, that’s when they have a real problem with it.”
Another participant described how he felt scared of law enforcement when taking a quick dip in the lake when he perceived that it wasn’t allowed; he felt like he “risked getting put in jail for it, or getting a ticket for it.”
For housing-insecure individuals with disabilities, beach access can be even more difficult. One participant we spoke to who uses a motorized wheelchair described the tedious process of getting herself to the beach: “I still have to be driven in a car. Go down the stone steps by the Northwestern art school. [My friend] had to hold on to me, and then walk to where there’s that stone bench area, where I can literally finally see and be as close as I could.” Despite these barriers, she emphasized the importance of the beach, stating, “No one’s gonna stop me. I want that water. I want to feel it, you know?”
According to Loellbach, the lakefront becomes an important refuge for those who are housing insecure in the summer, when “people prefer to stay outside by the lake instead of shelters.” She also emphasized the importance of having “places where they can just be without being bothered,” referencing the harm associated with hostile infrastructure like anti-homeless spikes and benches.
There is an even greater health cost to this unequal access to green and blue spaces, with research showing direct paths between nature and improved mental health, lower rates of chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes and stronger neighborhood social cohesion.
As groups like Evanston Fight for Black Lives push to eliminate beach passes in Evanston to improve beach accessibility, it is important to also consider other social and physical barriers affecting the beach experiences of people who are housing insecure.
Furthermore, with Evanston making national news this year thanks to the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, the first housing reparations bill of its kind, it is reasonable to question how the City’s goal of increasing affordable housing and economic development for Black residents will include Evanston’s housing insecure populations, a large proportion of whom are Black.
Our conversations with people who are housing insecure in Evanston revealed to us that although the lake is largely considered a public resource, there are many ways that housing status, class and race shape who is allowed to be part of “the public.” In addition to fighting for more affordable housing, all Evanstonians have a shared responsibility to ensure our unhoused and housing-insecure neighbors enjoy equal access and a sense of belonging at the lakefront.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the second of an eight-part series where we share key findings and action items related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).