Updated: Jul 21, 2020
"When my son was growing up, we depended on friends who had kids just a little older to give us clothes. It's easy for people who are connected, but just one or two barriers can isolate people from simple resources like hand-me-downs."
Michele S. Hays, is a ubiquitous Evanston activist and organizer, blogger, foodie, mother, and firefighter's wife. She has lots of opinions, which she freely and unapologetically shares. She draws on and shares information from a seemingly endless bank of knowledge about Evanston policies, plans, and programs.
Countless neighbors and Evanstonians throughout the city who start off as strangers end up as Michele's friends--riding in her car, calling on her for advice and information, and benefiting from her tireless efforts to make their lives a little more comfortable.
One morning in January, Michele took her individual efforts a step further: she clicked onto her Facebook account and started a new group called Back On Their Feet - Evanston, IL, or BOTF. The group, which now boasts 588 members, is active all hours of the day and night with Evanston residents looking for free diapers for their baby or for a friend's baby; trying to find an affordable apartment to rent for themselves or for someone they heard through the grapevine needing help; or someone who has a gently used couch in need of a new home.
You'll find posts like: "Was there a post here yesterday from someone needing pull-ups? I have a nearly-full small package of 4T-5T pull-ups, if someone needs them I'd be happy to put them on my porch for pickup."
"I have a friend who is homeless, and her car was just repossessed. Can we help her? ... She is just the hardest worker and the most dedicated mother. She needs $600 to get her car back. Help? Thoughts? Ideas?"
"Good people of Evanston! A Syrian refugee family with 4 children is looking desperately for affordable housing in Evanston, preferably south Evanston. The catch is they need a first floor unit or elevator building because their 7-year old daughter has serious disabilities ... If anyone has any leads, or knows of someone with space, please contact me ASAP."
I asked Michele about the story behind BOTF.
DE: What made you start the group?
MH: I knew one of my son's friends had struggled with what they call "precarious housing, " or "couch-surfing" for several years. I happened to speak to her just before the March on Washington, which I attended with the group from Dear Evanston, and she told me her family was promised housing from a local agency and would finally get an apartment at the end of the week.
I was at the March, heading towards our group's planned meeting with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and my phone rang. I saw it was the young woman, and answered to the sound of sobbing. Their housing had fallen through on the same day they'd reached the time limit at the shelter; they could either move to another shelter, or sleep in their car. This was a family of four, with one on the way, homeless due to circumstances beyond their control...and they were concerned that shelter living was making their youngest sick. She had called me for help, and I was right next to the most-connected group of women I could think of in Evanston, so I loudly and brazenly asked the group for help...and the idea for this group was born.
DE: Has it been successful?
MH: The Facebook "Hive Mind" is a powerful thing. With the resources of the group, we successfully got our first family connected with services and into an apartment, and were able to provide them with most of the furnishings and household items they needed. They are now doing well, although sadly they were not able to afford to stay in Evanston.
People have reached out to us with other needs, frequently clothing for preschoolers, babies, and high school students (there isn't a corresponding resource like ESCCA - Evanston School Children's Clothing Association for those groups) sometimes housing issues, sometimes with other needs. Since the group is intentionally informal, I don't have a good sense of our success rate, but I can say that there's an awful lot of stuff in Evanston that some people need and other people need to get rid of.
Since our group started with connections I made at the Women's March, and I happen to be lucky enough to already have and have made amazing friends who joined immediately, there's an incredible wealth of collective knowledge, so problem-solving and figuring out how to connect people has often been successful. As we grow, so does our collective knowledge--and a critical factor has been the voices of people who initially came to us for help.
DE: How do you measure its success?
MH: The short answer is we currently don't. I am working on an idea for an app that at least quantifies and connects the physical resources--one of the problems with Facebook is that posts get harder and harder to find over time--but we aren't there yet. I can look through Facebook threads and see we're at least making inroads.
Part of the problem with formal resources is that their energy gets siphoned towards accountability; we're just a group of people. This gives us flexibility they don't have, and lets us help people who might otherwise fall through the safety net.
DE: Why do you think a group like this is needed?
MH: What's relatively easy for me--I can easily access the internet, transportation, and elected officials--can be nearly impossible for someone struggling to make ends meet. We tend to take things like transportation, computer skills, internet access, or time off work for granted, but a single barrier can make it impossible to access existing services.
For instance, when my son was growing up, we depended on friends who had kids just a little older to give us clothes. It's easy for people who are connected, but just one or two barriers can isolate people from simple resources like hand-me-downs.
In addition, sadly, our safety net is terribly broken. People who have no money are expected to provide their own transportation, child care, and time. I've spent hours with friends I'm helping at the DHS, for instance--and THAT is an entire article in itself.
DE: How do people find out about it (both helpers and people in need)?
MH: I liked Caring Outreach by Parents in Evanston: COPE's model of reaching out to school social workers to find people in need, and using the school community to meet those needs. I've loosely modeled this group after that, knowing that COPE was struggling to address larger issues of homelessness, unemployment, physical needs and poverty that are outside of their mission. We've not only reached out to the schools, but also to organizations like Connections for the Homeless, RefugeeOne and Family Promise Chicago North Shore as well as the City's caseworkers.
We try to connect to other Facebook groups online, where a surprising number of people have found us.
DE: Could the City be helping these folks more instead of needing a page like this?
MH: We need to stop measuring the efficacy of our tax dollars by output, and instead start looking at what percentage of the problem we're solving. It frustrates me how often we talk about how many "units of housing" are being made available, when it's a drop in the bucket compared to need.
We also need caseworkers that are fully empowered to solve problems: we talk a lot about being resource-rich, but an awful lot of those resources are out of reach for many people.
DE: What's the racial/ethnic breakdown of people in need?
MH: I'm sure it's no shock to anyone that, with a few exceptions, it is mostly women of color. The racial disparities in Evanston become a very stark reality when you start offering service directly.
DE: What's the racial/ethnic breakdown of people who donate?
MH: That is more interesting - it's a group that better represents the sort of diversity Evanston prides itself on; while the majority of our members are white women, we do have donors and supporters from a much wider group. I would say that the unifying factors are that our supporters are largely middle-class, and already engaged in trying to make the world better.
DE: Why is this a satisfying project for you?
MH: I am very tired of seeing neighbors struggle, and I'm hoping we can collectively do something about it. It's satisfying to connect the dots when that's an option, knowing that we're not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I'm honored and grateful that people are so willing to connect with us and help us move towards the Evanston we purport ourselves to be.
DE: What have you learned so far?
MH: I've learned a lot. There are some gigantic, gaping holes in our safety net.
There are no income-based cab vouchers or reduced CTA fares unless you are a senior citizen, and Uber and Lyft won't even accept gift cards unless the user has a valid credit card or bank account.
Almost all services offered require multiple in-person meetings (which, in addition to requiring transportation, also unfairly penalizes the working poor.)
Child care isn't available anywhere. There aren't even drop-in centers when people are receiving services targeted to families, in governmental agencies or charitable ones. The IL child care subsidy is only available if you have a job, and even then there is a significant co-pay that is a challenge for low-wage workers.
Health services for the uninsured are spotty, and dental service for adults is horrifying, at best: diseased teeth are pulled and not replaced. Free charity dental services typically have a waiting period of six months to a year, even in Evanston, the Dental Days clinic (again, only extractions) happens every six months. The best advice I was offered for an abscessed tooth is to go to the Emergency Room...which isn't good for the rest of us!
Service organizations often have rigid paperwork requirements and such a long waiting list that they routinely deny service if anything is out of order, even if the requested paperwork is impossible, for example, a lease when a tenant is going to be evicted because the landlord refuses to renew the lease, or proof of address from a homeless person.
There are very few places to get free personal care items like soap, toothbrushes, and feminine supplies and no program that specifically covers them. Our local diaper pantry has a waiting list, and offers 50 diapers a month, which is less than half of what is needed even with careful use.
Direct advocacy, physically being there with someone, works: I've seen totally different results when I drop someone off at an agency than when I accompany someone to a meeting. I hate that this is true, but it's real.
DE: How can people join the group either to get help or to provide it?
MH: They can search Back On Their Feet-Evanston in the Facebook search bar (it's a closed group; meaning it's not visible or available to anyone until they've asked and been permitted to join). Then click "join," and answer the questions or respond to the private message. We want to be welcoming, but we also want to make sure we keep spammers out! I also have someone in the group who can translate for Spanish speakers. And if people feel uncomfortable asking for help publicly, they can just send a message to me privately and I can post anonymously on their behalf.
If you have any questions, email Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org.