Evanston Agency Makes Residents Feel at Home

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.”


Primo Center Houses & Inspires Homeless Families

For nearly 40 years, the Primo Center for Women and Children has cared for our most vulnerable neighbors on the city’s west side — women and children who are homeless.

Through housing, shelter and childcare programs, Primo Center not only places families in safe living situations, but empowers parents to break cycles of poverty and homelessness for their children.

Today, it’s especially important, as more than 40 percent of children in homeless families are under the age of six. Research shows these children are more likely to experience severe anxiety, depression or withdrawal as a result of their living situation.

To reduce this trauma, Primo Center — a United Way community partner — places families in safe, therapeutic settings where they’re encouraged to regain their independence and find permanent housing. They can also access a myriad of physical and mental health services and violence prevention programs.

Poverty and homelessness aren’t typically due to one issue or circumstance, which is why we at United Way work with a network of community partners, like Primo Center, to create a safety net for our neighbors facing hard times. By bringing together social service agencies, we’re able to combine Primo Center’s services with resources other United Way partners provide. This allows us to address a wide range of needs on a person’s road to stability.

In response to the quality of care she received at Primo Center, Ms. Jones, a young woman from North Lawndale was inspired to pen the following poem:

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You, too, can be a beacon of light by ensuring our city’s most vulnerable residents are housed. Support our work to connect individuals and families to life-changing programs and services.



La Casa Norte Gives Unhoused Youth a Place to Call Home

As temperatures across the region plunged to lethal levels last week, most Chicagoans retreated to the safety of their homes. But for many across the region, such an option is a luxury.

In Cook County, it’s estimated that 80,000 to 125,000 individuals are homeless, including thousands of youth and young adults who live in shelters, stay with a series of extended family members, or couch surf. 

Fortunately, during the cold snap, social service agencies, churches and shelters across the city, including three emergency youth shelters managed by La Casa Norte, provided a haven from the cold.

A United Way community partner, La Casa Norte works to resolve housing insecurity in the Chicago region by providing emergency, transitional and permanent housing, as well as supportive services to youth and families.

On Thursday, despite the -27-degree wind chill outside, Shanavia Stevens, coordinator of La Casa Norte’s Casa Corazon program, greeted teens and young adults who sought shelter at the housing agency’s Back of the Yards location.

“It’s important to have a safe haven for young people, even those who aren’t homeless and need somewhere to go and other supports,” Shanavia said.

Tackling the root of housing insecurity

While shelters were critical during the recent polar vortex, La Casa Norte works year-round to eliminate housing insecurity.

Homelessness impacts people in all walks of life, but teenagers and young adults are especially vulnerable, as they often lack the financial means to support themselves. Family disputes, parents’ lack of acceptance of their sexuality and domestic violence are common reasons that young people become homeless.

To immediately address this crisis and inequity, La Casa Norte has facilitated three emergency shelter locations for local youth ages 18 to 24 since early 2014. They have 45 beds between the Back of the Yards location and two Logan Square shelters, one of which houses pregnant girls, young mothers and their children.

Furthermore, through a combination of permanent housing and supportive services, La Casa Norte works to resolve the root causes of homelessness and provide robust supports to ensure their clients’ long-term success.

“We want to get you housed, but then we want to look at what are the other things we need to address in order to ensure that you’re able to maintain your housing or employment or whatever your goal is,” said Jessica Rodriguez, associate director of development at La Casa Norte. “Everyone that walks through our doors receives their own tailored plan.”

Providing not just a house, but a home

On Thursday, when the temperatures dipped to a record-low, Wynisha Henderson, 22, and a few peers watched movies, played games, worked on the computers and visited with the shelter’s in-house case manager.

Wynisha has visited the youth shelter and drop-in center since November when she lost her income and was evicted from her apartment. An inconspicuous two-story building along 47th Street, the drop-in center and shelter is a place for youth to relax, socialize and plan for their futures. The living space includes tables, lockers, computer desks, a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower and a laundry corner.  Wynisha, an artist, loves to draw and paint using the art supplies provided in the recreational space.

Bunk beds run along the walls of two co-ed rooms upstairs. Downstairs, residents are fed two home-cooked meals a day and provided with toiletries.

For those who don’t want to stay overnight or have other arrangements, they’re welcome to hang out in the drop-in center during daytime hours and to attend social events, like Job Club or a trip to an open mic night in the neighborhood. However they use the youth center, Shanavia simply wants it to be a safe, accepting space.

“We’re dealing with young people in a very vulnerable situation,” Shanavia said. “And a lot of the times it’s their first time experiencing homelessness or coming to a shelter and they may have had other experiences in their home when they weren’t treated humanely.”

“We want them to know that homelessness isn’t your identity, it’s your situation,” she added.

Helping young adults reach their full potential

When young adults access La Casa Norte’s emergency shelters and drop-in centers, the agency’s caseworkers also help them begin the process of securing their own home. Through a coordinated network of housing providers, the young adults are assessed for risks and placed on a city-wide list to be enrolled in a permanent housing program.

At this time, Wynisha has completed the assessment and is awaiting placement. In the meantime, the program’s caseworkers are providing additional support and guidance to ensure she can successfully live independently. After experiencing a tough year last year, Wynisha is eager to enroll in school, find a job and secure permanent housing this year.

She’s considering two vet technician programs so she can explore her love for animals, an interest she discovered last year when she visited a rural farm in Wisconsin. La Casa Norte employees are helping her access her transcripts and weigh her options. The previous day, Wynisha sat with a La Casa Norte volunteer, preparing for an interview with an animal anti-cruelty organization scheduled for later in the week. She learned tips to pitch herself and convey her passion for the work.

And while there’s no word on a permanent housing placement yet, Wynisha remains optimistic 2019 will be her year to shine.

“Being here has helped me mentally and physically. It’s been very positive,” Wynisha said. “Last year was rough, but it’s been a really good year so far. Transitioning to the shelter has helped a lot.”

“But even if I got placed, it’s still home here.”