Bonnie Jackson, 67, is thankful still to be living in her yellow-with-green-and-white-trim three-story home in north Evanston. Nine years ago, her future in the 100-year-old house was uncertain. Two weeks after being laid off by Motorola, Jackson – a divorcée living alone – was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
"I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay the mortgage," she recalls, her voice quavering just slightly due to the Parkinson's.
She decided to rent out her two vacant rooms through a renting program at Northwestern University, but it was scary blindly introducing a stranger into her home. The next year, Jackson learned about local nonprofit Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs' Homesharing program and has used the service ever since.
For nearly a decade, Jackson has housed professors and grad students from China, Singapore and Yemen. She's shared her kitchen and her television with a young violin maker and a "cute Italian boy." Jackson, who lives mostly off of Social Security and a small pension, relies on the extra income renting out her rooms generates, and she says sharing her living space helps stave off the depression brought on by Parkinson's. Plus it's nice to have someone around to open her fruit jars or tie her thick red hair into a ponytail when her hands are too shaky to manage these tasks.
Since 1985, Interfaith's Homesharing program has been introducing homeowners in danger of foreclosure to people in need of cheap, safe shelter throughout Evanston and neighboring villages. The program is free and funded by local businesses, foundations and townships, including Evanston Township.
This fall the program is celebrating its 25th birthday with a brand-new website and a new name: North Suburban Homesharing.
Jackie Grossmann, the program's coordinator for the past 14 years, says the makeover is necessary to address the evolving needs of room providers and seekers. When this service was conceived, Grossmann says, participants consisted primarily of senior citizens on low budgets willing to rent their extra bedrooms below market rate in exchange for a little assistance and companionship. (Average monthly rents range from $450-$600 and include utilities.) But an increasingly weakened economy has diversified the field of those needing housing help.
"Over the years, we've learned to move from a program that just served elder needs to one that serves the needs of all ages and circumstances," Grossmann says. "We've remained flexible."
Within the last five years, Grossmann says the program has served more and more baby boomers laid off during the recession, single parents unable to pay their mortgages, and skilled professionals and contract workers seeking temporary housing while they search for permanent jobs. She says the recession has created situations she's never seen before.
"The stress of the economy on marriages has led to more separations and divorces," she says, "But they end up staying together because they can't afford to move – so one takes the basement and the other the first floor. It's an interesting phenomenon."
Each year Grossmann processes approximately 600 intakes, with the help of a part-time, Spanish-speaking assistant. Grossmann vets the applications and interviews each qualifying homeowner and renter, checking their financial and personal backgrounds. What distinguishes this program from roommate-pairing services such as those available through Craigslist, is the consideration placed on participants' individual needs. Grossmann has to know who smokes, who's allergic to cats, who needs to live close to public transportation. She checks out the living accommodations proffered and makes sure renters earn at least $1,000 month. Usually those 600 applications translate into about 40 matches annually. The service is confidential, as many homeowners are reticent to advertise they need help keeping their homes, fearing stigma among their middle- to upper-class neighbors.
Due to fair-housing laws, homeowners cannot request renters of specific races or religions; however, they can request specific genders because they are renting out of their own homes. Grossmann tries to make sure that at least one-third of the matches are interracial or intercultural, as part of the Interfaith Housing Center's mission is to unite different faiths and cultures.
Jackson is one homeowner who has profited intellectually and culturally from her matches. One of her current renters is a medical student interning at nearby St. Francis Hospital; she plays the old piano ("beautifully," Jackson says) in the living room that Jackson can no longer play.
"Jackie Grossmann is very thoughtful and very thorough," Jackson says. "She's got really good instincts in terms of what will work and what won't work."
This year Grossmann says she's received more applications than ever, but increasingly more people do not qualify as renters because they've been unemployed for so long and have maxed out their credit cards. She says the program will continue to adapt to rising problems perpetuated by the economic climate, and she's hoping the new name and website – both to be launched on Nov. 7 – will help with the evolution.
Jackson is also confident the Homesharing program will continue to adapt to her own rising problems, perpetuated by Parkinson's and older age.
"Right now I don't have a lot of problems with mobility," she says, "but at some point I probably will, and it's nice to know that if you fall, someone's going to find you eventually."
This month both her tenants are moving out, and while the second-floor room will be filled Oct. 1, she's still waiting to be matched for the third-floor space. She hopes it's a young man: She'll need help plowing the snow once it begins to fall this winter.
For more information on the Interfaith Housing Center's Homesharing program, visit www.interfaithhousingcenter.org/mainpages/13homeshare.html. Check back on Nov. 7 for the new North Suburban Homesharing website.