Leaders of anti-violence and street outreach groups say their work is even more critical during the coronavirus crisis, and if they fall behind, law enforcement agencies will face an even greater burden because of it.
So a coalition of Illinois groups is pushing for a share of federal funding that has been set aside for criminal-justice related coronavirus efforts in the state.
Neha Gill’s organization, Apna Ghar, is part of the 20-member coalition. Her group works to end gender-based violence in immigrant and refugee communities, and Gill said Apna Ghar lately has been adding to and shifting its services to protect people in danger during the coronavirus pandemic.
Take technology, for example. Gill’s Uptown-based organization has had to upgrade its technology to be able to reach survivors stuck in dangerous homes; they’re also trying to find additional housing that creates more safe spaces for people but also adheres to social distancing guidelines.
Gill said because of those added efforts, and a big increase in need for her group’s services, her organization and others like it need some of the stimulus money that’s been earmarked for those on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis.
“We’ve definitely stepped up our outreach and we’re going to have to do it in different ways,” Gill said. “We just need a lot more support to be able to ... assist with the health care needs, the need to socially and physically distance and at the same time protect safety and confidentiality.”
The “Coalition for Shared Safety” is looking to get a portion of about $20 million in federal funding. That money has been designated for criminal-justice work across the state. The coalition includes domestic violence support groups, rape crisis centers and organizations that work to end Chicago gun violence. Organization leaders say this is an unprecedented partnership because it combines so many different types of anti-violence groups that have never come together before.
They say their unique — and collective — message is that money should not go solely to law enforcement agencies, when there is a growing need for help among community-based organizations still providing essential services that address and help stem violence.
“It’s truly [about] looking at more than just your kind of first thoughts of first responders and seeing all the community service providers that are also on those frontlines as well, creating those safe spaces for people to go to or those emotional supports or informational supports that people need to make sure that they’re safe,” said Sarah Layden, a director at Resilience, a nonprofit rape crisis center in Chicago.
Layden said her group has had to stop its usual practice of going to hospitals to support sexual assault survivors because of COVID-19. As a result they need to make major investments in technology that include looking to provide tools like computer tablets to hospitals so survivors can get remote counseling.
Coalition members say preventing gun violence is not a role that falls only to police. Vaughn Bryant, executive director of the Metropolitan Peace Initiatives of Metropolitan Family Services, said his group works to prevent shootings by sending teams of street outreach workers throughout Chicago to connect with the people at the center of Chicago gun violence. He said his organization is providing masks, gloves and hand sanitizers to people who continue doing their essential work during the pandemic.
In the meantime, Bryant said, those workers have taken on the additional task of informing people about the risks of coronavirus and the need to stay home.
“The organizations that are in these communities are … really the credible messengers and the source that people look to for emergency aid,” Bryant said. “We want to put them in a position to continue to serve the community.”
John Maki, a director at the Alliance for Safety and Justice, said coalition members work closely with black and Latino communities, which have been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus.
“We want to make sure that, absolutely, people who work in prisons, police officers have access to [personal protective equipment]. But we also need to make sure that, you know, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, reentry workers, street violence prevention workers, folks who are engaging … people and communities that have the highest risk and rates of death and infection caused by COVID-19 have access to these resources,” Maki said.
The $20 million is part of the federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program and is being distributed by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority spokeswoman Cristin Evans said the agency has been in contact with the coalition.
“Community input is always welcome,” Evans said.
She said plans for the $20 million in stimulus funds are still being worked out, and she could not say whether a portion of the money would go to non-profits or other community organizations.
Maki used to be executive director of the Criminal Justice Information Authority. He said the agency needs to “think creatively” about ways to get money to non-governmental anti-violence efforts.
Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is an acting board member of the information authority and also with the coalition pushing for a share of the stimulus funding.
“We will be advocating in the broadest terms possible that we figure out a way to get some of those funds to people who are providing victim services,” Smith said.
Gill, from Apna Ghar, said all of the groups in their coalition are stepping up during this unprecedented crisis, and they need help from the government.
“What we’re saying is just, you know, we’re already helping … let us help more.”