At its virtual meeting Tuesday night, Evanston’s Housing and Community Development Committee approved more than $1 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the city to either acquire or develop a homeless shelter.

The funding is specifically earmarked from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for shelters and rent assistance for low-income households – the money is not included in the general pot of $43 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that the city is allocating as it chooses.

Tuesday’s decision by the committee simply allocates the money for a homeless shelter; it does not approve any plan for a shelter location or a service provider to staff the shelter. The allocation plan will now go to City Council for final approval, which will then allow the city to unlock the funding from HUD.

At that point, the committee and City Council will then figure out how to proceed with the money in hand, according to interim Community Development Director Sarah Flax.

Some residents attending the virtual meeting Tuesday had questions about the intersection between this funding and local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless applying for a special use permit to operate a shelter at the Margarita Inn. Technically, City Council could decide to use this money to help develop and plan the homeless shelter at the Margarita Inn, but Flax and others emphasized that the federal grant funds would likely be best used to further expand the city’s shelter capacity beyond what already exists.

The plan also allots $150,000 for tenant-based rental assistance and just under $150,000 for the administration and planning of a new homeless shelter, bringing the total funding to just under $1.3 million.

Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) said at the meeting that his ward in south Evanston has several possible locations for a shelter, but the city also has the option to pursue a shelter in another nearby suburb like Skokie, for instance, if an existing building or site in Evanston is not viable.

“Unless they’re panhandling and ‘in the way,’ society has largely made them [homeless people] invisible,” said Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward). “So before COVID, there hasn’t been a lot of funding to build new shelters. … I just wanted to remind us that there’s been this renewed focus on not only supporting those who are homeless, but also a renewed effort and focus on helping those who have mental health care needs, so that’s why we’re having this discussion and why more funding is available.”

As Burns pointed out, federal funding for developing homeless shelters is exceedingly rare, according to Flax. In the past, the U.S. government has typically required any emergency housing relief money to go toward programs like rental assistance or incentives for new housing developments to include a percentage of affordable units, for example.

Generally, the demand in Evanston for more shelter capacity is very high right now, according to Housing and Economic Development Analyst Ana Elizarraga. Based on conversations with local shelter providers and experts, the city’s housing staff found that all units in existing shelters are full, with the immediate need for another 106 beds and the long-term need for over 900 more units for people at high risk for becoming homeless.

Additionally, Evanston currently has 60 homeless domestic violence survivors, and the YWCA only has 58 beds for those individuals, Elizarraga said.

In the process of creating an allocation plan for this money, city staff also consulted with Evanston’s Coalition to End Homelessness and the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County. Katie Eighan, the alliance’s continuum of care planning director, said 70% of suburban Cook County’s shelter capacity before the pandemic came in congregate settings like churches. As a result, cities like Evanston need more noncongregate housing with separate rooms so that families and individuals can stay safe and healthy while seeking shelter, she said.

“This is a critical, extremely rare opportunity to use hallmarked funds for capital costs that can be used to acquire and rehab noncongregate shelter facilities,” Eighan said. “This is a stated and explicit eligible activity for hallmarked funding, and this represents our largest unmet need for the suburban Cook County homeless response system.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...