After the Crisis, Defining the New Critical Needs

Economic crisis spurred urgent need grant program-what are urgent needs 10 years on? How Unity Fund awarded $280K Tweet This

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In the grip of the Great Recession, Chicago fought back a rising tide of human need: mass layoffs and skyrocketing unemployment, rising homelessness, growing hunger. Ten years later, as our region has made progress toward economic recovery, what are the most urgent needs we face today?

A look back at Metro Chicago Vital Signs—the Trust’s data project launched amid the economic crisis to measure its human impact—shows that in February 2009, the unemployment rate in our region had climbed to 8.6%. 440,687 families relied on food stamps: an increase of 15% from a year before. And the city’s homelessness prevention call center fielded 4,704 phone calls that month from Chicagoans at risk of losing their homes.

In response, the Trust launched the Unity Fund, mobilizing donors to provide emergency funding that could be quickly deployed where it was needed most. Listening and learning from their nonprofit partners working on the front lines, the Trust’s program officers made Unity grants in critical areas of need that first year, providing:

  • Thousands of pounds of additional food available at pantries and food banks
  • Additional beds at homeless shelters, and funds to pay their rising heating bills
  • Health care for people with no insurance or access to care
  • Cash assistance for low-income senior citizens facing emergencies
  • Counseling and legal support for families at risk of losing their homes

Ten years later, we know that these services are still needed across our region. The Trust’s GO Grant program provides stable support to organizations meeting essential human needs. And the Unity Fund continues, raising thousands of dollars each year so that in addition to our regular grant making, the Trust is able to assess the service landscape and dynamically respond to fill important gaps in sustaining the most vulnerable in our communities.

But as the unemployment rate has fallen to 5%, and the wave of foreclosures hollowing out our communities has abated, what does serving the most vulnerable in our region look like today?

To define those priorities, program officers Anna Lee and Alma Rodriguez assessed the funding landscape, and the charitable trends in the Giving in Illinois report. Their analysis identified people in our communities whose quality of life is affected by significant gaps in services: people with disabilities, opportunity youth, returning citizens, immigrants, veterans and seniors.

In January 2018, through the generosity of our Unity Fund donors, the Trust awarded $279,000 in grants that will make the following possible:


Emergency Services

Clothing and supplies for homeless and low-income families. Cradles to Crayons: $18,000

Emergency food distribution in Lakeview and surrounding communities. Lakeview Pantry: $18,000

Home meal delivery and wellness checks for seniors. Meals on Wheels Foundation of Northern Illinois: $25,000

Emergency food, financial assistance and access to housing. Taller de Jose: $10,000


Health & Wellness

Health and social support services for youth survivors of trauma. Lawrence Hall: $20,000

Wellness, nutrition and physical activity programs for children and families. Erie Neighborhood House: $18,000

Health and wellness programs for girls ages 7-13. Girls in the Game: $15,000

Access to food and health screenings at West Town Health Market. Presence Health Network: $5,000

Health education and physical activity programs for youth and parents in Back of the Yards. Union Impact Center: $20,000

Active living and health education programs for youth with disabilities, offered in partnership with community organizations El Valor and Esperanza Services. University of Illinois – College of Applied Health Sciences: $20,000

Healthy, local produce for residents of Bronzeville. Chicago Green City Market: $15,000


Violence Prevention

Bilingual/bicultural programs in gender violence prevention and intervention. Mujeres Latinas en Accion: $15,000

Re-entry services, case management and restorative justice for 400 young people. YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago: $20,000


Legal & Financial Services

Legal aid for low-income families in outpatient mental health care. Legal Council for Health Justice: $20,000

Financial coaching and emergency services to low-income families. LIFT Inc.: $20,000

Legal assistance to job seekers and employees with disabilities. Equip for Equality: $20,000


Program officers Lee and Rodriguez have identified three priority areas for the next wave of Unity Fund grants—with a focus on programs serving the same vulnerable target populations—to be awarded in September: emergency needs, like interim housing and food; mental health services; and workforce development programs.

Before becoming the Trust’s Executive Committee chair, civic leader Linda Wolf explained her long-time support of the Unity Fund this way: “I think a lot of times, as you read the paper and you see what is happening, you say, ‘How can I make a difference? How can I help?’ And the Unity Fund is a wonderful opportunity to help—knowing that there is such expertise in terms of where the dollars are most needed, and where they’re needed most quickly.”

“Even today, with all the challenges that are going on in the world and in the city, what’s very appealing about the Unity Fund is that you know you can donate dollars, and they’re really going to go to the most critical areas, and they’re going to go there now.”