The people served by Connections for the Homeless aren’t who you think they are.
Yes, some are the hard-core homeless, those lost souls who are scarred by mental health issues, substance abuse and the street. For them, Connections provides a safe place to store vital documents, a shower, a warm meal—literally a connection to society and safety.
But the majority doesn’t fit that stereotype. They are the single mom who just lost her job and won’t be able to make next month’s rent payment. The lawyer who lost his family and job due to depression. And the woman who needs to leave an abusive partner. These people could be your neighbors — and they’re also clients of Connections for the Homeless.
“Being a volunteer with Connections has let me see that positive things can happen for people. It’s helped me see the Divinity in people and connect with that,” says Katy Pendleton, who has devoted her time to the Evanston-based organization in various roles over the last 23 years. She has watched the programs grow and develop, but strongly feels it’s the devotion of the staff that makes a difference.
Story #1: A young mother with a criminal record hadn’t worked in two years. She needed to work and wanted to work. Eric Dougal, employment coordinator for Connections, was willing to put himself on the line to help her.
“I had an established relationship with a manager at a local Corner Bakery,” he says. So he made the call and made his case for why this young woman deserved a job. “She went in for an interview. Two days later she started working and now it’s been six months and she loves the job and they love her.”
Connections provided the bridge to employment, but as Dougal notes, “She took the opportunity and made the absolute most of it.”
Connections started in 1984 as a shelter attached to Lake Street Church of Evanston. Now they serve 900 clients each year, and they provide much more than a shower and a sandwich. Most of their clients need prevention services—an emergency security deposit or rent subsidy—in order to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place. If that fails, Connections makes sure the individual or family is homeless for as short a time as possible.
“Poor people are at risk for homelessness. And we’re seeing more first-time homeless,” says Executive Director Paul Selden. “There’s a lag, someone will lose their job, go through savings, and then live with family or friends, before becoming homeless.”
What that client needs is personal, financial and housing stability. So Connections offers classes on employment skills, financial literacy, substance abuse counseling and landlord/tenant relations. Plus, they have groups that meet to teach life skills like cooking. It’s intense and much of it is one-on-one, but that’s what makes the difference for the individual at risk.
Story #2: A woman laid off from her job came to Connections for transitional housing when she could no longer pay her rent. While in the shelter, Connections helped her find a job — and then she found a second job. She worked both jobs, saved her money and met with a therapist to work through some of the issues that had led to homelessness. Connections continues to support her, but she’s doing her part—working and paying the rent on the apartment Connections found for her.
Hilda’s Place is the entry point for Connections. It’s a drop-in shelter and soup kitchen that provides a place for a homeless person to meet a case manager and decide on goals for the future.
“We’re trying to establish a therapeutic relationship with each client,” says Becky Feiler, director of Clinical Services. “We treat each person with dignity and respect.” Staff members understand the trauma of living on the street, and realize that for many of these individuals, the problems they face are difficult to undo. But they’re willing to meet their clients wherever they are and start with the smallest of steps.
“We now have a nurse one morning and one evening a week,” says Lisa Todd, volunteer manager. “We reduced ER visits by 90% because of that.” She’s the link that has helped many of the clients stabilize their medications, which is important given that the client base of Connections is aging.
Coordinator of Health and Program Services Henry Colquitt notes, “A lot of people who are in their 50s and 60s are too young for Social Security, but are finding it very difficult to get employed. In those cases, we dig deeper to find them resources in the community and within their family to keep them off the streets.”
Story #3: In one year, the middle-class husband and wife’s world crumbled. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Without family to help, they were about to lose their house. The staff at Connections pitched in and each took a piece of the problem. They found affordable housing, helped get their finances in order and assisted with some of their legal problems.
“There’s no shame in getting help from family,” says Todd. “But if there are no family resources and something unexpected happens, Connections can be that family and fill in the gaps.”
If you would like to get involved with Connections for the Homeless, please see their web site: cfthinc.org. They need financial contributions, volunteers and donations of food and clothing. You can also speak to Sue Loellbach, director of development, at 847-475-7070 ext. 101.
About Connections and Make It Better.net Cover Your Cause:
At the end of our first year, we wanted to donate the cover of our magazine to a charity, but how to choose? We decided to let our readers choose. We put the cover up for auction so readers could bid on behalf of their favorite charity—with the money going to that charity.
A group of four donors, active volunteers and board members of Connections for the Homeless—Katy Pendleton, Birch Burghardt, Randy Huyck and Geeta Krishnamurthi—put in the winning bid of $10,500. Our thanks to them for their contribution to Connections for the Homeless.
Photo credit: Photos by John Reilly and Violetta Dominek
John Reilly Photography