As the rest of the region came to a halt during February’s Polar Vortex, the team at Connections for the Homeless in Evanston worked on overdrive. For more than 72 hours, staff members, volunteers and program participants went above and beyond to ensure their neighbors were safe and warm.
Staff and volunteers coordinated shuttles between shelters and soup kitchens, participants dropped off food, and one dedicated volunteer drove a participant from Evanston all the way to Chicago’s South Side to pick up his paycheck.
Whether it’s 80 degrees or -32 degrees, Connections is dedicated to ending homelessness through its three program pillars — homelessness prevention, shelter services and housing programs.
“Connections is a place where anyone can come if they need help,” said Jen Feuer-Crystal, director of Connections’ housing programs. “We work to serve our community and be recognized as a place where everybody is welcome.”
Tackling the root causes of homelessness
Evanstonians seeking immediate help can meet their most basic needs at Connections’ overnight shelter and drop-in center. Anyone in need of services can visit with a nurse or therapist, take a shower, access the food pantry, pick out clothing and have a safe place to store their belongings. Case management services are also available to access housing supports, employment assistance, public benefits and educational opportunities.
Once individuals and families are connected, Connections helps ensure their long-term success through its transitional and supportive housing programs. They help people move from homelessness to housing as quickly as possible, placing families in homes and providing robust case management.
For those who aren’t homeless but are at risk of eviction, Connections provides financial support and case management to ensure the entire household can stay in its home and avoid the costs and trauma of homelessness.
In addition to direct support, Connections works change the landscape that causes homelessness. In a city whose median monthly rent increased by 2.3% since last year, Connections fiercely advocates for investments in affordable housing. It also seeks to create strong relationships with other service providers so that participants’ outstanding needs are met. As the convener of the Evanston Neighborhood Network, a coalition of community stakeholders, United Way of Metro Chicago helps Connections bridge these relationships and coordinate care.
More than a service provider, Connections is a family
Last year, Connections prevented 224 families from losing their homes because of eviction. And though Connections’ impact can be explained in numbers, the true testaments of its work are the bonds its staff has created with individuals and families.
“Staffing here is very unique. Everybody from the CEO to volunteers understands [the problems people face]. They just get it,” said Bessie Simmons, a family housing support case manager who previously experienced housing insecurity. “We’re like one. I haven’t seen a place like this yet.”
Jen agreed, adding, “The case managers work really hard to do their best for families. We don’t think of participants as less than. They have so many strengths and are such an addition to the community.”
In her time with Connections, Patricia, a resilient, resourceful mother, has become a part of this unconventional family.
Four years ago, while living in a temporary women’s shelter with her children, Patricia sought help to leave the stressful situation. With Connections’ assistance, Patricia enrolled in their permanent supportive housing program. Through the program, she’s gained access to other supports for herself and her kids, including tutoring and daycare programs.
Today, the family lives in a two-story flat, and Patricia works as a certified nursing assistant. She also helps build the community that raised her up. She rallies support for affordable housing in Evanston and never misses “family night” events.
“I love [the Connections team],” Patricia said. “It’s always felt like a family. At first, I wasn’t so sure, but, now, I know I can go to them with anything.”