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.



A Mother’s Fight Won With Legal Aid

A few years ago, when Jahnice Johnson would play with their son Ja-lijah, she kept noticing he wasn’t speaking new words or making new motions despite being enrolled in speech and physical therapy.  

As a young child with a developmental disability, Ja-lijah was entitled to educational and therapeutic services through Early Intervention — a federal program that pairs toddlers with a range of therapists to improve their skills. However, the providers frequently missed visits and Ja-lijah wasn’t progressing.

Then, the services abruptly stopped with little explanation and no accountability. Eventually, Ja-lijah was reapproved for services, but the service provider still failed to show.

“It was sad because he was missing out,” Jahnice said. She greatly feared his learning would regress.

To ensure Ja-lijah got the services he deserves, Jahnice enlisted Legal Council for Health Justice, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner. Across the city, lawyers at Legal Council provide free legal aid to people living with life-changing health conditions.

Last year, they helped more than 2,000 clients access the necessities of a dignified life: a safe home, an education, a steady income, family security and healthcare.

In Ja-lijah’s case, Sarah Hess, a staff attorney at Legal Council helped The Johnsons reconnect him to therapeutic services. “I want him to have the best and everything he needs,” Jahnice said. “It meant a lot to have her. She was on it. It was amazing.”

Despite some major hurdles and frustrations, today, Ja’lijah, a vibrant three year old, is thriving in a new learning program. Monday through Friday, Ja-lijah attends Head Start, a pre-k program through Chicago Public Schools. He has everything he needs to succeed — a personal teaching aide, therapy, transportation and an extended school year.

“I can tell he’s different, like with his hands and mobile skills,” Jahnice said. “He loves his [toy shopping] cart and putting food in it…When I read books to him, he loves that.”

And while Legal Council and Sarah deserve great praise for their commitment to Ja-lijah’s success, none of it would be possible without Jahnice’s relentless advocacy.

“You can have all the lawyers in the world but if you don’t have an advocate mom like Jahnice, there’s nothing you can do,” Sarah said. “This all happened because she was ready to fight for it.”

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Are you ready to join the fight? The generosity of people like you ensures that every parent and child has access to a quality education and health services. When you support United Way you support a network of community partners who are facing these challenges head on. Our future and the future of thousands of kids will be brighter because of it.


Apna Ghar Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors

In honor of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we recognize the strength and resilience of survivors of sexual assault and celebrate our compassionate community partners who work to end violence and encourage healing in our city.

Neha Gill has traveled the world studying gender issues. From East Africa to Latin America to Asia, she’s shaped policies and initiatives to better serve survivors of violence.

In Chicago, Neha is putting that insight into action as executive director of Apna Ghar. A United Way community partner, Apna Ghar provides holistic services to survivors of violence who are from immigrant communities. These include legal aid, counseling, housing assistance, employment services and more.

Since she was hired to the post in 2016, Neha has also overseen the agency’s education and advocacy programs. Through these initiatives, she and her team aim to change the culture, laws and responses to sexual assault that inhibit survivors from receiving justice or healing, and perpetrators from changing their behavior.

“The goal is to improve the conditions for the people that we’re serving,” Neha said. “We don’t want to just provide services and see them not be able to succeed because certain institutions or policies or society at large isn’t accepting.”

As an advocate for immigrant survivors, Neha views April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) as a moment to educate and activate our peers to end violence in our homes, neighborhoods and across the region. We, at United Way, echo her call.

Foremost, SAAM provides an opportunity to dispel misconceptions of sexual assault, Neha said. Among those is the fallacy that perpetrators are typically strangers looming in dark alleys. Instead, statistics show that they’re often someone the survivor knows, including friends, family and significant others.

Neha also seeks to bring attention to the unique needs of survivors from immigrant communities, the population Apna Ghar closely serves. Experiencing assault can be even more confusing and traumatizing for survivors who don’t know what services are available to them or those who can’t find help in their native language. Violence can also be increasingly isolating if survivors don’t have family in the region or the person who is harming them is their only source of support. Perpetrators may even hold a survivor’s immigration status against them, threatening to turn them over to authorities if they seek help.

Neha encourages her neighbors to go beyond learning about the problem to invest in prevention efforts, like Apna Ghar’s educational outreach. Statistics show that girls are 300% more likely to experience violence in adulthood if they were abused as a child, and boys are 600% more likely to be perpetrate violence if they were exposed to violence as a kid, she said.

She proposes that, together, we must teach children, teens and young adults about healthy masculinity, relationships and acceptable treatment of women and LGBT individuals. We must also facilitate programs that teach perpetrators of violence how to genuinely rebuild and repair relationships with those they’ve harmed.

And though SAAM lasts only a month, Neha’s vision for a violence-free future is everlasting. She’ll keep working until all people are treated equally and violence is eradicated.

But she can’t do it without you. Support Apna Ghar and other violence intervention and prevention efforts through our Safety Net programs. Together, we can ensure hate and harm don’t have a home in our city.

Housing: The Foundation for Student Success

In the winter months of 2016, Claudia Gonzalez*, a mother of three living in Brighton Park, unexpectedly lost her job. Though she aggressively searched for alternative employment, she couldn’t keep up with rent payments for her apartment.

The sole provider for her family, Claudia needed some outside support to keep a roof over the heads of her two sons and daughter, who were all enrolled at a local elementary school. Stable housing is a necessity for all individuals, but especially for students who require a strong foundation to learn and succeed.

That’s why the staff of their school referred Claudia and the family to Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s Success and Stability Program. Funded by the Siemer Institute, an organization that oversees a network of programs intended to stabilize families, the Success and Stability Program provides wrap-around services to families’ experiencing housing insecurity.  

Participating families have a school-aged child and are homeless, at-risk of being homeless or living in an unstable living environment, such as couch surfing or living with multiple families in one home. Families with parents who are undocumented or formerly incarcerated, as well as those displaced from other countries or U.S. territories, especially benefit from the program, as they face even greater barriers to obtaining housing and employment.   

A nationwide organization, Siemer Institute solely partners with local United Ways, who, in turn, facilitate the Success and Stability Program in communities of greatest need. In the Chicago region, United Way partner agencies in Brighton Park, Auburn Gresham and West Chicago host the program.

Stationed in local schools, the Success and Stability case managers are assigned dozens of families, like Claudia’s, to help the parents address the root causes of their challenges, craft goals to address those challenges and execute those goals. “By strengthening the household, you empower the parents so that the children are cared for and can thrive,” said Kimberly Richards, a program case manager from Auburn Gresham. Some common goals that parents make include avoiding eviction, finding affordable housing or saving for a home.

Caseworkers approach this work with the intention of creating a healthier environment for the students to learn and achieve.  “You can’t do homework when the lights turn out in the shelter. When you know your parents are worried about paying rent, you can’t focus on school,” said Jenny Hansen, United Way of Metro Chicago’s senior manager of Safety Net and Basic Needs. “If you’re hungry, tired or stressed because of eviction, you can’t learn. If we want kids to be successful in school, we need to stabilize the family.”

In addition, case managers also provide referrals to other social service programs to resolve families’ outstanding needs, like unemployment, gas and electric assistance, counseling services and student-learning programs. “We focus on bettering the person themselves,” said Hilda Martinez, a case manager in Brighton Park. “We’re not focusing on just the financial aspects but trying to make them a better person as a whole – each individual in the family, as opposed to just the parent or the child.”

Claudia’s enrollment in Brighton Park’s program did just that. After enrolling in the Success and Stability Program, she set three goals – to find employment, not to be evicted and to become more involved in her children’s interests.

With the assistance of her case manager, Claudia was able to speak with her landlord and discuss her situation to avoid eviction while looking for a job. Her case manager also referred her to agencies where she received rental assistance to pay her overdue rent and utility bills.

A few weeks later, Claudia was connected to an employment opportunity that fit her children’s school schedule and allowed her to cover her rent, avoiding eviction.

At the time, her children were struggling with the separation of their parents and their unstable living conditions, so their case manager connected them to counseling services. They were also able to enroll in after-school activities in the Brighton Park neighborhood, giving them access to new opportunities and support systems.

In August 2016, after six months of hard work, Claudia successfully completed the program. While she achieved her goals and her situation was stabilized, she also managed to go above and beyond her initial objectives. Claudia opened her first savings account and, later, was able to purchase a car, a feat that will make other resources and activities more accessible to the family.

Most importantly, at the end of the school year, the children’s grades and behavior in class drastically improved. With dedicated support from her case manager and a strong commitment to bettering the lives of her children, Claudia and her family left the Success and Stability Program better prepared for the days ahead.

*While all stories are true, names and/or images may have been changed to protect an individual’s privacy.

Blue Island Library Meal Program Helps Silence the Growl of Summer Hunger

On a hot July day in the south suburb of Blue Island, 16 miles from the Chicago Loop, a dozen local kids and their families trickled into the town’s quiet community library. They weren’t simply there to feed their minds with stories, but to fill their stomachs at the library’s summer lunch program.

The program, in its second year, seeks to tackle food insecurity in the community, a problem that swells in the summer months when youth don’t have access to school meals.

Kaity O’Neal, a mother of seven, learned about the program when she started working at the library. She often brings two of her kids, Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, with her to work and they utilize the meal program during the summer break. “They just absolutely love it here,” Katherine said.

Kaiah and Elisha enjoy the snacks, but they especially love the people and activities. “I meet new friends every day and I like to read Origami books,” said Kaiah.

In the 2018 season the Blue Island Library meal program was expanded to a full week of service, and in its first 20 days has served more than 300 kids. In comparison, it served it 186 meals during last year’s 8-week stint when meals were only offered two days a week.

“Blue Island and Robbins [don’t] have a major grocery store. They got rid of it maybe six years ago,” said Ashley Palomo, a United Way-AmeriCorps member, of the region’s status as a “food desert.” To address this dilemma, the program, which is one of dozens of city Summer Food Service Programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free lunches Monday through Friday to children of all ages.

Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, eat lunch at the Blue Island Library.

With the help of Ashley and her fellow AmeriCorps member, Kassandra Esparza, the program’s expansion has helped to advance the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network’s goal to become a physically healthy community.

The Neighborhood Network, a coalition of social service providers who partner with United Way to improve the communities of Blue Island and Robbins, aims to reduce food insecurity for 15 percent of families served by the network by 2027.

On this day, a handful of kids came specifically to the Blue Island Library for the meal program, while others were visiting and stopped in out of curiosity. Gathered at tables in a wood-paneled room filled with local historical artifacts, the kids ate their lunch of chicken Caesar wraps, honeydew, cherry tomatoes and chocolate milk.

Along with their meal, they colored, listened to music and read books, which offered a welcoming break from the humidity outdoors and a chance for their parents to scour the bookshelves upstairs.

A mother of five with a baby on the way, Katherine Guzik, learned about the program while walking through the library that day. It was her first visit, and her 8-year-old Alejandra Ramirez-Guzik was hungry for an early afternoon snack between her mother’s errands.

Like a lot of the parents in the community, Katherine was delighted to learn about the program’s goal to connect kids to meals. “It’s definitely something in the area that’s helpful. If you’ve been to other libraries, a lot of people sit around because they have nowhere else to go,” Katherine said. “It’s important to fill their stomachs.”



Communities across the Chicago region are faced with interrelated problems that no agency or leader can tackle alone. Through our Neighborhood Network Initiative, leaders of ten communities have partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago to strategize, plan and resolve the daily challenges their residents face.

With a goal of creating a healthier, safer and more resilient community, stakeholders in Little Village, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, joined together to form the Marshall Square Resource Network (MSRN). Together, they make up the Little Village Neighborhood Network. These partners are working together to curb violence, improve schools and help residents achieve economic security.

Driving out community violence with peace

Each year, the community of Marshall Square, a subset of Little Village, brings awareness to the issue of domestic violence by organizing an annual march. While snaking through their streets, residents call for violence to cease and neighbors to offer compassion and support to those who have been harmed. Following the Peach March, residents are connected to local resources to help them identify, respond to, and heal from violence and trauma.

Through collaborative projects between the Network’s partners, stakeholders are also providing much-needed outlets and resources to address other deeply rooted issues such as gang violence, obesity and depression.

One example is an initiative for local youth organized by Teatro Americano. Meant to challenge the normalization of violence in relationships, the program combined education about healthy relationships with theater exercises to create an interactive and informative environment.

Training parents to improve students’ education

The collaborative groups aim to create positive school environments and academic experiences for Little Village’s students by involving the entire family.

Through the Supportive School Communities initiative, local parents have been trained to facilitate community discussions in four Marshall Square community schools. They educate their peers on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom and in their homes.

When parents are involved in their child’s education, children are more likely to be engaged and receive help at home, putting them on the path to academic success.

Encouraging healthy lifestyles through safe spaces

In addition, local leaders are promoting healthy lifestyles through exercise and gardening. By creating safer, more accessible outdoor spaces, they hope to reduce childhood obesity, a problem too many Marshall Square children face.

Through a walkability study, leaders have assessed obstacles and safety concerns that may impede outdoor activity, like unsafe intersections and hazardous sidewalks. Then, they’ll mitigate those problems.

A new community garden is in the works, too. MSRN recently announced the launch of a plot at Charles G. Hammond Elementary School. Hundreds of community members will have the opportunity to utilize the garden, providing them with access to fresh homegrown produce, as well a space for community-building.

Our community partners in the neighborhood also offer obesity prevention and weight loss services at neighborhood schools and obesity reduction programs at two community health centers. Starting this spring, an after-school walking club for neighborhood kids will take its first steps

Improving a community is a group effort

MSRN’s wide reach shows what’s possible when neighbors come together to drive long-lasting change.

Individually, these community partners offer vital services that drastically improve lives. But together, they create a community that neighbors are proud to call “home.”