Women to Women Looks at Barriers to Housing & Nutrition in McLean County

Reposted from WGLT

By Lindsay Jones

Increased rent without increased wages. Discrimination. Eviction.

Attendees of the Women to Women Giving Circle’s public forum on Tuesday evening (April 25, 2023) learned of these issues — and more — facing many people seeking housing in the Bloomington-Normal area, as an affordable housing crisis remains ongoing in the Twin Cities.

“It doesn’t always look the same for every family,” Prairie State Legal Service staff attorney Erin Duncan said in an interview. “In our community, people are facing a lot of systemic barriers: high demand for existing housing stock, rising rents, general inflation, sometimes discrimination, stigma issues if somebody has a past eviction or criminal background. There’s a lot going on and it’s a mix of things that are really personal to somebody and their family, but also these external factors and systemic barriers.”

Duncan was one of three panelists at the forum, alongside Cecilia Long, a community outreach coordinator for Prairie State Legal Services, and Claye Vogelsang, a family support coordinator with the Unit 5 school district. Tuesday’s event followed a similar forum held in the fall that focused on local barriers to transportation and childcare.

“I think there are probably folks here … who know this is happening, big-picture, but may feel like they don’t know anybody personally who is facing housing instability … because it can be really hidden, sometimes,” Duncan said. “I think sometimes conversations focus around homelessness and street homeless and certainly that is happening in our community, but there are a lot of folks who we would call maybe precariously housed who are living in cars, or couch-surfing, doubled up with folks maybe moving from one apartment to the next.”

Duncan and Long presented stories in first-person to the audience that were an amalgamation of scenarios and challenges clients of the legal services nonprofit have faced over the past 18 months. Protections provided in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — such as a moratorium on evictions and financial aid programs — have mostly ended. Housing stock itself, whether single or multifamily, remains in short supply, and what is available may be expensive — a byproduct of inflating prices while wages in the area remain stagnant.

Vogelsang spoke of the impact a lack of stable housing or consistent food may have on Unit 5 students and noted that while there are around 17 food pantries in the area, families may face difficulties accessing them or the food provided may not be nutritionally ideal.

“All of this is a lot and we rely on our social service agencies to do a lot of things, but they are not the solution,” Long, who is also a trustee on Heartland Community College’s board, said. “Our goal as a community, in my opinion, should be to prevent these crises from happening, which means that we need community-wide solutions that increase affordable housing and shelter options for people in our community.”

The Women to Women Giving Circle describes itself as a “funding arm” of the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation and as such, panelists encouraged attendees to prioritize housing in their annual donations — and contact their local government representatives in the meantime.

District 6 county board member Beverly Bell echoed that sentiment, saying “we’re going to have to start with the mayors.”

“Let’s get started. Let’s get started petitioning. Let’s get out there and make this happen,” Bell said. “Because the housing that is out there is horrible. If you want to contact me with some fresh ideas, I will fight for you.”