Evanston will move forward with new initiatives to deter youth violence in 2022, tapping federal COVID recovery funds to pay for the programs.

Council members voted 8-0 at their regular meeting on  Jan. 10 to approve an allocation of $552,500 of the $41.3 million in federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds the city is receiving to expand the “My City, Your City, Our City” program.

The program includes a number of strategies to address youth and family violence.

Just before the vote Mayor Daniel Biss thanked Audrey Thompson, the city’s Community Services Manager, and her staff for their work on the issue.

“It’s maybe the most important thing we do as a community,” he said.

Officials expect to return to the Council in April to request additional funds for workforce development – providing training and work for the city’s youth – another key component in the city’s effort to offer them career economic opportunities.

The actions follow increased violence in recent years, including a shooting Nov. 28 that left one teenager dead and four others wounded.

The proposed program builds on the “My City, Your City, Our City” initiative begun in 2021 to create  summer activities for youth to counter social isolation caused by COVID, Thompson told Council members in a full presentation at their Dec. 20 meeting.

That initiative reached both youth and their families, with a targeted age of 13 to 18, Thompson said.

Wider age range

The new proposal calls for expanding the program to target age groups between 11 and 30 years of age. It would also include family members of youths involved in violence.

The funds would provide new and expanded programs in the areas of education and civic engagement.

In education, funds would be allocated to increase the number of non-violence camps for youths to learn alternatives to violence.

The funding will also include $90,000 for a liaison to the middle schools and $50,000 to support clients who need financial assistance with vocational training, certificates/licensure to fulfill career paths that do not qualify under local, state or federal programs, Thompson said in a memo.

In the area of civic engagement, $40,500 would be set aside as stipends for the 15 youths who are to serve on the city’s newly established Youth Advisory Committee, and $18,000 for junior outreach workers trained as seasonal employees. Another $24,000 would go to stipends for parents to lead “Parenting 4 Non-Violence” classes. A new position would be added to the city’s current four-member Outreach team who have been key in defusing violence at the street level in the past. The position, with salary and benefits, will cost about $100,000, Thompson said.

The city will tap ARPA funds to pay for the expanded and new programs, which would qualify under a category that makes use of the funds available “to prevent violence and mitigate the increase in violence during the pandemic,” Thompson said. “A holistic program to address the underlying factors that result in youth violence must be applied,” she said.

A Living Room alternative to police response 

Earlier in the meeting, Council members held a discussion about using ARPA funds to pay for another program that officials say will address a major gap in mental health services.

City officials, including Mayor Biss and Council members Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, have been meeting with mental health providers in recent months to look at alternatives to 911 calls to police for people in psychiatric crisis.

Their attention has turned to a program used by Turning Point in Skokie referred to as a Living Room – a walk-in/call-in program for adults in psychiatric crisis.

“At no cost to guests, this program provides a safe, trauma-informed, expertly staffed alternative to hospital emergency rooms,” wrote Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski, in a memo on the issue.

Possible partnership with Turning Point 

In the past five years, Gandurski reported, the program has maintained at least a 98% success rate in deflecting guests away from visits to emergency rooms. In fiscal year 2021, there were 288 visits with only one hospitalization, she said.

Officials are looking at partnering with Turning Point to create a similar model in Evanston, eyeing a build out of a home in the area of Saint Francis Hospital as a possible location, Gandurski said.

Turning Point officials have estimated the annual costs for operating a new Living Room in Evanston would run about $650,000, not including the initial renovation of the space, Gandurski reported.

“Should Council move forward with a Living Room model for Evanston, the city would have to cover the costs for renovation through ARPA funding,” Gandurski said, “and Turning Point requests the additional $650,000 for operation and services.”

She estimated total costs of $874,250.

During citizen comment at the meeting, Patti Capouch, the Chief Executive Officer of Impact Behavioral Health Partners and a member of a city subcommittee established to develop a non-police response to people in crisis, spoke in support of the program.

The subcommittee extensively studied the issue, she told Council members.

“We met with different agencies to gather information to assess what are emergency mental health services that already existed in Evanston and we tried to identify the gaps,” she said.

“We also met with outreach workers from the city of Evanston, members of the police force and staff from the 911 Center to talk about the types of calls they received, some of the issues facing residents, and what types of calls police responded to that could potentially have been referred to mental health professionals.”

The group in its study found that, “for those who are experiencing psychiatric emergencies, Turning Point has been providing a living room in Skokie for more than 10 years and had really great outcomes in terms of keeping their guests from going to the emergency department,” she said.

“Turning Point also informed us that they collaborate with other Evanston-based nonprofits around mental health, substance use and employment.”

Ann Fisher Raney, the Chief Executive Officer of Turning Point, also addressed Council members at the meeting.

She first offered gratitude to other behavioral health partners on the project.

“We’ve always worked well together, but for the past 18 months, our organizations have spent hours working on a model for alleviating mental health crises in Evanston,” she said.

She listed a number of reasons in support of the Living Room alternative.

One is that “it provides the right response to the right place at the right time,” she said. “Guests don’t go to hospital emergency departments. First responders can focus on public safety, accidents and emergencies that require their attention and expertise.”

She said the model also saves money.

“There is a savings of 87% when we compare the average cost of the Living Room visit to the average cost of an emergency department visit,” she said.

“This represents an annual savings of $490,000 for our Living Room in Skokie over the past year.”

The city will “still have to think through how we would train our 911 dispatchers,” said Council member Fleming, about handling calls that would be rerouted to the Living Room once the program is up and running.

Meanwhile, a nationwide program is moving forward with a 988 mental health crisis number.

That number is going to be directly connected to mobile response teams throughout the state, further complicating matters.

Council members didn’t arrive at any decision, only setting the item for discussion.

“There have been some questions. We all have some homework to work on,” Mayor Biss said.

With the Council showing a general level of support for the idea, Bisss said the next discussion will center on Turning Point’s request for funding, “and certainly we’ll be eager to kind of work with every Council member between now and then to figure out what it’s going to take to make sure that we’re addressing the questions everyone has.”  

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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