As fierce winds, bitter temperatures and blowing snow moved into the Chicago area ahead of the Christmas weekend, those experiencing homelessness in Evanston faced difficult choices.

Carol Wilson is a board member at Interfaith Action of Evanston. Credit: Submitted

Many of the places at which they might otherwise shelter, such as the library and the drop-in shelter at Hilda’s Place, were closed for the holidays and some places shut down earlier in anticipation of the storm. 

Thanks to some quick thinking and coordination between Audrey Thompson, director of Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Department, and Sue Murphy Berube, executive director of Interfaith Action of Evanston, the worst was avoided.

Clients of Interfaith’s Hospitality and Weekend Centers and Overnight Shelter were able to spend their afternoon and evening hours at city recreation facilities, where they were also fed dinner and received transportation between the city facilities and Interfaith’s facilities. 

Making help possible

This was possible because Interfaith Action chose not to close its Weekend Center for the holiday and, in fact, extended the hours of its Hospitality and Weekend Centers when needed to ensure that none of our 25 clients seeking shelter were left outside in the cold between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27. 

At 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a day of service, Interfaith Action volunteers will be hitting the streets in the Walk for Warmth, our largest fundraiser of the year.

On Monday, Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a day of service, Interfaith Action volunteers will be hitting the streets for its fundraiser – the Walk for Warmth. This picture and the one below are from the 2022 walk. Credit: Rich Cahan

The two-mile walk will travel past many of the 10 churches that host our Overnight Shelter between October and May, as well St. Mark’s Church, which hosts the Hospitality Center five days a week, year-round. 

We all know there is bitter weather still to come this winter. Already, IAE and the city Parks and Recreation Department are making plans to be ready when that happens.

I’m hopeful that enough people will come out to walk or to donate to the Walk for Warmth so Interfaith Action can continue to step up for those experiencing homelessness and hunger when the cold winds blow again. You can find out how to provide that support here.

As a board member and volunteer for Interfaith Action, I am grateful that the City of Evanston stepped up to provide warm venues, food and bus transportation for our clients and other folks experiencing homelessness. I am also immeasurably proud of the organization for which I work, alongside literally hundreds of volunteers. 

Interfaith Action of Evanston is a volunteer-driven organization with a small, mostly part-time staff, and an army of volunteers that actively supports the work of its facilities and services, but also works vigorously to raise the money needed to keep these services going. 

I became involved in the winter of 2013-2014, when the polar vortex kept temperatures at or below zero for what seemed like weeks on end.

Participants on the march: From last year’s Interfaith Action Walk for Warmth. Credit: Richard Cahan

At the time, the Emergency Overnight Shelter had a smaller list of volunteers, mostly retired folks, because it only opened when the temperature was below 10 degrees and that wasn’t all that frequent. With the polar vortex hanging on interminably, a call went out for new volunteers willing to spend the night in a church lobby to keep the shelter open and I was one of many who stepped up. 

Venturing out on a zero-degree night to climb over snowbanks and see the faces of those waiting outside a church door for us to provide access drove home the importance of expanding the shelter. That required not only volunteering in person but helping to raise the funds necessary to do this, which is why I joined the board.

I am proud to say that Interfaith Action’s volunteers today are doing both the daily work and the sometimes-bigger job of finding the money needed. We now operate the shelter from mid-October until May, covering not only the frozen months of winter but those cold, rainy or blustery fall and spring days as well.

And we offer seven-day-a-week morning respite, something new this year. Doing this requires staff as well as volunteers, so our financial requirements have changed dramatically. 

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