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Some new programs are surfacing as candidates for funding as Evanston City Council members begin narrowing their sights on how they plan to allocate federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

At a special City Council meeting Dec. 6, city staff presented council members with some proposed uses of the COVID-19 recovery funds. These were based on council decisions, and staff sought direction on whether to develop specific recommendations on other proposals.

The city learned in March that Evanston would receive approximately $43.1 million in ARPA funds, presenting what officials have called a once-in-a generation opportunity to address longstanding needs.

Of that total, approximately $15.1 million of the funds has been committed, according to a detailed memo for the meeting drawn up by interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski, along with City Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak and City Housing and Grants Manager Sarah Flax. That would leave approximately $28 million to be allocated.

Of the funds already committed, council members designated $4.25 million for General Fund operations in the fiscal year 2022 budget, $2.45 million for equipment replacement and nearly $3.3 million for parking fund projects.

In addition, the council earlier approved allocating $500,000 in hazard pay for city employees who have worked through the pandemic.

Council members established “buckets” for where other funds would go, with $7 million marked for economic development, $4 million for social services, $6 million for sewer and Climate Action and Resilience Plan projects, $4 million for affordable housing and $4 million for Inclusive & Equitable Recovery.

The last category, Inclusive & Equitable Recovery, was established to address “the disproportionate housing, health and economic impacts of the COVD-19 pandemic on low-income communities and the importance of mitigating these effects,” according to the staff memo.

Portions of Census Tracts 8092 in the city’s Fifth Ward (the Foster-Emerson-Darrow area) and 8102 in the southeast Eighth Ward may qualify for assistance, officials said.

Those census tracts “have a high percentage of low-income people,” Flax told council members in a presentation at the meeting. She said these areas are also classified as Difficult Development Areas, which the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as areas with high land, construction and utility costs relative to the local median income.

In their memo and presentation at the Dec. 6 meeting, officials also highlighted several new programs proposed to address needs in the recovery from COVID-19.

  • In Economic Development, a Business District Ambassador Program would be established.

“Evanston’s business districts are beginning to show wear resulting from a number of factors including aging infrastructure, deferred maintenance, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote officials.

“The ambassador program will have a strong focus on cleaning and beautification and will be designed to build relationships with merchants, residents, and visitors by assisting with directions, logging 311 concerns, [and] providing cleaning and landscaping services in addition to connecting people with social service needs with Evanston social service providers, including Trilogy’s mental health crisis service.”

  • In Social Services, a mental health “Living Room” concept is being studied. It would offer a safe place for people in distress to go.

“Evanston lacks community-based mental health services that offer people experiencing a mental health crisis an alternative to calling 911 or seeking hospitalization,” the staff memo said.

“Emergency rooms often have long wait times and patients’ symptoms can be exacerbated by what is often a loud and unwelcoming environment.

“Living Rooms provide a safe space for people in a crisis where they can talk to someone who understands what they are going through. Studies show that people who visit Living Rooms have better outcomes than those who visit emergency rooms. Living Rooms are also a cost-effective alternative to emergency rooms for providing immediate care for people with mental health crises.”

Saint Francis Amita Health, at 355 Ridge Ave., and the Erie Evanston/Skokie Family Health Center, 1285 Hartrey Ave., are being looked at as potential sites.

Based on preliminary cost estimates of a build-out, the budget for a Living Room at Erie or Saint Francis would run between $200,000 and $350,000, staff said.

  • In Social Services, child-care services are a major focus.

The Evanston Early Childhood Council composed of 25 early childhood providers, has reported operating revenue losses during the pandemic from decreased enrollment and loss of State of Illinois Child Care Assistance Program funding, as well as other factors, staff said.

EECC is requesting $1.77 million, including $500,000 in equity/hazard pay for providers who have worked through the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has taken an enormous toll on the childcare industry, as well as on the developmental needs of lower-income children, and their parents, particularly mothers who are unable to return to the workforce because they can’t find affordable childcare,” wrote staff.

“This has a disparate impact on Evanston’s African-American/Black and Latinx families, who are disproportionately lower-income, and hampers their ability to recover from the financial impacts of COVID [and dampens] the City of Evanston’s economic recovery.”

  • In Social Services, a Latinx Welcoming Center, marshaling together services in one place for Evanston’s expanding Latinx community, is under consideration.

The city’s Hispanic population has been expanding in recent years, increasing from 6,739 residents in 2010 to 8,778 in 2020, a 30% increase, staff noted. That exceeded the national Hispanic growth rate of 23%, the memo noted.

“Spanish is the primary language of approximately 45% of Evanston residents who report they speak English less than well,” staff said, “and 20.7% and 19.5% of District 65 and 202 students [respectively], are Hispanic.”

“A Latinx Welcoming Center could be developed based on the innovative model of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Welcoming Center (IWC) that eliminates systematic barriers that immigrants may have in accessing services and empowers immigrant communities to succeed,” the staff memo said.

“There are 30 IWCs that are comprehensive service centers for the integration of immigrants and refugees in Illinois that receive operating support from [the Illinois Department of Public Health]. It needs to be determined if IDPH would provide operating support for such a center in Evanston if the city were to use ARPA to fund the upfront capital needs and start-up costs.”

During discussion, 2nd Ward Council member Peter Braithwaite asked about the name, Latinx Welcoming Center, and whether there should be a broader label for the center, noting the city also has arrivals from a number of different countries.

Housing and Grants Manager Flax said she has to do more research on that question.

“Our Latinx population is by far our largest non-English speaking group and our largest immigrant group,” she said. “And so I think, [it] has to be a focus of that. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be exclusive.”

Council members made no decisions on those proposals or others on the table, including a $1 million request from The Aux to create a Black business hub and a $2 million request from Northlight Theatre in support of its move back to Evanston. Discussions of the proposals has been pushed to January.

Under the ARPA guidelines, municipalities have until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate ARPA funds; all funds must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

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.

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