Hundreds of students in Evanston/Skokie District 65 are actively housing insecure – living on the street, in shelters or with a relative or friend – and the district is looking for any open units or rooms that could house them.
For the last several years, about 250 students in the district have been homeless or housing insecure at any given time. This year, that number has ballooned to more than 300 students, according to District 65 Mental Health Practitioner Allie Harned, who helps coordinate wraparound services for families facing a crisis.
“There’s not enough affordable housing in Evanston. That’s the bottom line,” Harned said. “I feel like I’m doing an impossible job. I’m trying to find housing for people, and there’s no housing. There’s no way I’m going to be successful, which is a little bit frustrating sometimes.
“But I have hope, because there’s a lot of people that are working hard and doing a lot of good things in our district. We’re going to keep trying.”
Harned works regularly with local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless and other Evanston social service organizations to connect students to housing as quickly as possible when a crisis arises. At a community meeting in September about the Margarita Inn homeless shelter, she spoke up to ask anyone with an extra room or a vacant rental unit to reach out to her email, email@example.com.
These students all have different stories and backgrounds. Some of them are longtime Evanstonians driven out by a lack of affordability or a hardship experienced during the pandemic, while others are newly arrived immigrants or refugees.
“I started noticing a few years into my career that we, at the school, would be working really hard to support families with academic support plans, and maybe behavior support plans, if needed” Harned said. “But there were often so many needs outside of that that the family was having.”
One of those primary needs, as Harned mentioned, is affordable housing. Many families run into eviction crises or simply have to move away because they cannot afford Evanston anymore.
But it has an effect. Students who attend the same elementary, middle and high schools consistently, year after year, have better educational and life outcomes, according to Harned. As a result, housing insecurity often damages students’ social, extracurricular and academic experiences.
Many of these students are “doubled up,” meaning they and their families are staying with a relative or a friend until they can get back on their feet. But a number of students are also in transitional housing like shelters or in a hotel through an assistance voucher granted by school or government programs.
“It can disrupt everything about their social, educational and safety life, and how they live their life,” said Jen Feuer-Crystal, director of housing programs at Connections for the Homeless. “That’s why families really just need wraparound services to make sure we can make it brief and nonrecurring if they are experiencing homelessness. That’s really our goal.”
Harned and District 65 are able to provide some monetary support to housing insecure students through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. For example, if a student is living doubled up somewhere outside of Evanston for the moment, the district can use McKinney-Vento funds to pay for transportation to and from school.
Or, in some other circumstances, the district can use that money to pay for a hotel for a week or two. Local nonprofit Women Helping Others collects donations for the district’s McKinney-Vento fund, and you can put “MV” in the “ship to company” field on the organization’s donations page to ensure the gift goes to this cause.
Sometimes, though, mutual aid, like simply collecting money through Venmo and asking friends to help out, can be more efficient and effective in helping families find an immediate housing solution. Local Facebook page “Back on Their Feet” coordinates mutual aid for families in need, Harned said.
Ultimately, people working in these social service spaces in Evanston are doing whatever they can to give families an option to stay here, but a long-term solution will require some fundamental changes in city policies and housing density, both Harned and Feuer-Crystal said.
“We want Evanston to be a choice for people if that’s where they want to live,” Feuer-Crystal said. “To me, that’s the moral of the story. Us being a community that is welcoming, inclusive and affordable for people, that would be a game changer and make us an even more beautiful community than we are.”