The new emergency shelter at Lake Street Church. 
Photo from Connections
The new emergency shelter at Lake Street Church. Photo from Connections

A consortium of Evanston groups that work with the City’s homeless has stepped forward with a multi-prong plan that makes use of empty hotel rooms and other temporary spaces in an effort to get people into safe places during the Coronavirus crisis.

Leaders from Connections for the Homeless along with the Evanston Community Foundation, Interfaith Action Evanston, YWCA Evanston/North Shore, Lake Street Church  and Curt’s Café have collaborated on the plan, announced March 24.

“The robust collaboration between Evanston leaders and demand for action from community members is leading to a sustainable solution with hotel stays and a safety net of emergency shelter for our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Connections for the Homeless, the group spearheading the effort.

Many of the City’s homeless were left even more vulnerable after Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Stay at Home Order, which took effect March 21.

People in that group were left “wandering, because you can’t shelter-in-place when you don’t have a shelter,” said Nia Tavoularis, Connection for the Homeless’s Director of Development.

Previous moves, including the Evanston Public Library officials’ March 13 decision to close all of the City’s library branches and the shuttering of restaurants in line with the Governor’s order, also had an effect on homeless individuals’  support system.

“That’s like many of the places that people without homes gravitate to because they’re open,” observed one of the people on the street after a job layoff.

Interfaith Action on March15 reluctantly closed its Emergency Overnight Shelter, which had rotated among participating churches and synagogues. The program, which drew about 40 people each night, had to be closed, because the spaces used were not large enough to keep people at a safe distance from one another, officials said.

The next day, Connections for the Homeless outlined requests to the City to create solutions for Evanston's homeless population, which included hand washing stations, bathroom access, motel vouchers and emergency shelters, to go into shuttered community spaces, according to the group’s log of activity.

Interim City Manager Erika Storlie confirmed the City has been collaborating with Connections and Interfaith Action. 

“Connections has doubled their capacity at Lake St Church [from 20 to 40 beds], due to the great support the church, its members and leaders have provided to support the effort,” Ms. Storlie noted. “Overflow hotel rooms have been secured at hotels,” she said, declining to name the specific hotels used to protect the clients.

The participating groups are still putting together a list of vulnerable residents in need of shelter.

All in all, “a great team of community partners working to help solve the problem,” Ms. Storlie said.

Throughout the process, community members have helped fuel action, actively calling attention to the plight of the City’s homeless in posts on a newly-created Facebook group, Evanston Area Covid-19 group and urging response. The group, launched on March 11, now totals more than 4,700 members.

Housing advocates have followed the posts and are “deeply appreciative,” acknowledged Ms. Tavoularis, “of how vociferously the community has drawn attention to the needs of neighbors who are homeless or precariously housed, and really grateful in the ways they have taken things into their own hands.”

Evanston Community Foundation has been prominent too, backing Connections with financial support throughout the challenging process, said Ms. Tavoularis.

The collaboration effort also allowed “us to take advantage of Alderman [Robin Rue] Simmons’ generous effort of her private property to be used as an emergency shelter,” Ms. Tavoularis said.

The alderman announced, initially through the “Dear Evanston” social media site,  that she would be gifting the house, which she had closed on for purchase a few weeks before, to be used as a shelter for homeless women for two weeks “while I’m working with Connections on more solutions.”

Since then, Connections, along with community members, have joined Ald. Simmons, cleaning the property, securing cots, and putting in blankets, lamps, night stands, towels and other items that will be needed during the property’s use as an emergency shelter, Ms. Tavoularis said.

She said the expansion will include 10 cots at Ald. Simmons’s private residence, and another 20 cots added at Lake Street Church, 607 Lake St. Plans call for some people to be moved into those places or into one of the hotel rooms, said Ms. Tavoularis.

In the meantime, The YWCA Evanston/North Shore Connections is accessing hotel rooms to create space at their own shelter.

 “Every upheaval that all of us are experiencing disproportionately impacts those with the least resources, not the least of which are survivors of domestic violence,” said Karen Singer, the group’s President and CEO, in a statement. “And for survivors, home is not a safe place to retreat to. Having additional housing space in another setting and support for those currently living in our congregate shelter so they can practice social distancing and have their own rooms and bathrooms is critical to the health and safety of all. We are grateful to all of our partners in this effort.”

Throughout the process, Connections for the Homeless will continued to offer drop-in services Monday through Friday at the organization’s 2121 Dewey Ave. location. The agency’s staff has been spread out, maintaining the expanded shelter and services needed during the Stay at Home order, said Ms. Tavoularis.

“At this point we’re putting out a call for volunteers,” she said. Those interested should email Connections at info@connect2home.org