Murder of Homeless Woman on Steps of Evanston Church Points to Need for More Shelter
Under a heavy grey sky, sheltering beneath umbrellas against a sad, steady rain, about 100 Evanston residents gathered yesterday in a quiet Evanston neighborhood, around the alcove of the stately First United Methodist Church of Evanston (FUMC). This is where 49-year-old Tanuel Major, a homeless woman, was found beaten to death last Monday. They gathered to reclaim the place where she was murdered and honor her life.
According to Evanston Police Department Commander Ryan Glew, who attended the memorial and provided an update about the case, Major was originally from Chicago, but had recently frequented Evanston.
Glew said the police investigation into Major’s murder is now "focused."
"This is not a random act. We don't think think it's indicative of any danger to the public at large or to the congregation," Glew said. "We will continue to work on this case, and we are committed to helping everybody through this," he added.
With the cold, wet weather a powerful reminder of the conditions to which so many homeless people are exposed, church members, neighbors, and community members huddled together to remember Tanuel.
Reclaiming the Space, Calling for Justice
Standing in the alcove, FUMC's Senior Pastor Grace Imathui told the gathering, "We are here because harm was done in a place of 'do no harm.' We are here to claim back the holiness of this place.
"We are here because an average of three women are murdered every day by an intimate partner, and Black women disproportionately experience violence at home, at school, workplace, and in their neighborhood.
"We are here calling for justice for Tanuel. We are here because Tanuel's story has been woven into this church's story. And into Evanston's story. We are here because stories wake us up and give us clarity. Our bubble has burst. Be woke."
FUMC members Juliet Bond and her husband Kevin Bond attended the memorial on behalf of Kevin's mother, who, for the past 40 years has run the church's soup kitchen--which Tanuel visited frequently.
More Shelter, More Affordable Housing Needed
"It's just a travesty," said Juliet. "[A shelter for women] is something we've ignored for years. We don't have a shelter for women who are simply homeless."
While there are a variety of Evanston organizations and religious institutions that support, shelter, and house Evanston's homeless population, there is currently no night-time drop-in shelter for homeless women (though the YWCA Evanston/North Shore does offer support and shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence) and no drop-in shelter for men or families that doesn't require their participation in a wider support program.
Instead, EPD's Chief Richard Eddington told me today, when officers interact with homeless people (when no crime has been committed) the officer will offer them a ride to Pacific Garden Mission on Canal Street in Chicago, which provides shelter for men, women, and children.
"If the person is concerned about getting into a squad car, we call an Uber for them," Chief Eddington told me. "But it's totally optional. We can't order them to go to the shelter."
Eddington said that while shelter is always offered, there are many dynamics at play that are extremely difficult to navigate.
"Many people who are homeless know about the services that are available but want nothing to do with them," he said.
Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Evanston’s
Connections for the Homeless, who attended yesterday’s service, told me they knew Tanuel Major as 'Daisy.'
"She had a couple of interactions with members of our 'Community and Shelter' team through our drop in program," Boggs explained. "She accessed some basic-needs services, and she was offered additional case management and support but declined services at the time. Though it's painful to know in retrospect that Ms. Major declined additional supports, we respect every participants rights to choose for him or herself what services they want to utilize."
Ten Percent of Evanston's Population is Homeless or at Risk of Losing their Home
Last year, Bogg said, Connections served more than 1,000 neighbors, 42 percent of whom identified as female, across three main program areas--homelessness prevention, health and shelter services, and housing programs.
On any given night, she said, about 546 single adults experience homelessness in Evanston and 544 people in families experience homelessness.
According to a report produced by the City of Evanston’s Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness, 10 percent of Evanston's total population is homeless or at-risk of losing their home.
Data from the City of Evanston estimates that about 3,000 people in Evanston experience homelessness every year.
Recent figures from Evanston's two public school districts collectively reported more than 325 students who were homeless during the 2017 school year.
"We don’t know of a truly accurate report that tracks Evanston’s homeless population over time," Bogg told me. “But we do know that our services levels are the highest that they have ever been and that our community’s need for help far exceeds our ability to serve."
Number One Goal: To Expand Shelter for Women, Children
Bogg said Connections’ leadership is committed to expanding its shelter services, with the intent to serve women and children.
“It's the number one goal in the agency’s strategic plan," she told me, though, she said, a lack of resources and finding a viable location are two obstacles keeping the organization from expanding its services.
“But we are actively exploring relationships with partners in different faith communities to accelerate our efforts,” she said.
Connections' night-time shelter (18 beds) currently serves individuals who identify as male. Its daytime drop-in programming is accessible to anyone, as are all of Connections’ housing and prevention programs. Connections refers women to its partners at the YWCA, and families to Evanston’s Family Promise Chicago North Shore, Journey's in Arlington Heights, Pacific Garden and Mission, Sarah's Circle, or Housing Opportunities for Women (H.O.W.).
Traci Armer Kurtzer, an Evanston obgyn and anti-gun-violence activist with Moms Demand Action, said her work with women gives her an intimate understanding of the relationship between violence against women, domestic violence, and general violence and homelessness.
"It makes women more vulnerable when they don't have safe shelter, so housing insecurity is a big reason for situations where women are just not safe in our society," Kurtzer said. "We need to take these moments of sadness and reflection to think about how we want to be as a society," Kurtzer continued, tears gathering in her eyes, "And how we want to treat the most vulnerable in our society."
Karen, who lives across the street from the church, said her husband had seen Tanuel at 8 a.m. last Monday.
"He thought she was just sleeping," she said. "I just feel horrible that this woman had to go through something like that. To live the life that she lived and then to have to pass like that. It's just overwhelming."
Interfaith Action Runs Winter-Weather Emergency Shelter
Though the church isn't in her ward, Cicely Fleming, 9th ward alderwoman, said she came to show her respect.
"I also came as an individual because I volunteer with the homeless, so I know a lot of our homeless citizens and understand the impact of the City of Evanston not having a homeless shelter."
Fleming expressed her gratitude for Interfaith Action of Evanston (IA), a group of synagogues and churches that work together to serve Evanston's hungry and homeless populations.
IA provides a morning hospitality center five days a week, 52 weeks/year that offers breakfast, and a five-day-a-week afternoon warming center from November to March.
Two years ago, IA established a winter overnight emergency cold shelter from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. at one of its six faith communities, providing warm drinks and a safe place to sleep.
But, Fleming said, the group is extremely limited: though they receive some City funding, "They rely on volunteers and donations, and they open (at night) only when it's 20 degrees or colder."
Fleming said she doesn't know why the City doesn't have a shelter.
"It's very frustrating for me. Honestly, I think we should be ashamed of ourselves."
She suggested that the Harley-Clarke mansion, which Evanston residents recently voted by referendum to save from demolition, could be repurposed to house homeless people.
"That would be an awesome shelter," she said. "It's a building that the City owns. I have great frustration with people who want to have the building open but don't want it used to house people who are currently living outside. I'm hopeful that the citizens of Evanston will push, and they'll change our will, and make something happen."
FUMC Pastor Jane Cheema, speaking at the bottom of the church steps and surrounded by the crowd, said, "We are here because Tanuel Major was homeless. We are here because homelessness is an affront to human dignity. We are here that we might not waste Tanuel’s story but work toward ending homelessness."
Though large turnouts for memorials are always an important and powerful way to pay tribute to vulnerable individuals and families who have suffered a violent tragedy, it's also devastating to remember people after their lives have been cut short. It's a crucial reminder that we need to work harder to prevent violence and provide support for the most vulnerable people who live amongst us . . . while they are alive.
Of course, above and beyond shelter, there is an ongoing, urgent need for affordable housing in Evanston and even beyond that, a need for systemic change in our city and society so that we can eradicate homelessness entirely.
On Facebook following the memorial service yesterday, Timothy Eberhart, assistant professor of Theology and director of the MA in Public Ministry program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a member of FUMC, wrote what he called 'a personal testimony, not a pronouncement.'
"What I'm fearing is that our responses will be tepid, predictable, symbolic, focused on short-term immediate service but not broad-scale systemic justice," he wrote.
"I don't fear this because of our pastoral staff ... who steadfastly walk with the destitute and the dying. My unease is with those of us in the pews.
"I see our idolization of security, comfort, and respectability. I distrust the narrowness of our moral vision. I suspect that a wealthy, predominantly white, mainline congregation like ours would have to sacrifice too much - individually, collectively, institutionally - to acknowledge and renounce our complicit participation in the root causes that conspired to brutalize and murder Tanuel. And I say all of this not as an outsider standing in judgment but an insider standing judged by her death."
If you would like to honor Tanuel Major's life, consider volunteering with or donating to organizations that work with the homeless and for affordable housing in Evanston:
You can also consider joining OPAL, which works on issues of equity in Evanston and participating in the North Cook/Lake County Illinois Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, which is part of a national movement that's uniting people to challenge systemic racism and poverty. (chi-ppc.org or email email@example.com).