Tennile Brown and her 2-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, Jacari Brown, lived in her grandmother’s home in East Garfield Park when her life turned upside down. On August 14, after a weekend of shopping for the new school year, Jacari and his 9-year-old cousin spent the evening playing together. Just before dawn, a gunshot rang out inside the home.
The two boys, news reports later said, were searching for a television remote. Under a mattress, they found a firearm and Jacari’s cousin accidentally fired it, striking Jacari in the chest. Police officers arrived quickly, applied pressure to the young boy’s wounds, and drove him and Brown to the hospital. But Jacari didn’t make it.
Brown was left to make sense of her loss, and with it, the financial weight that takes a heavy toll on families like hers — $14,000 in funeral bills. “In that moment, you feel as though your life is over,” Brown said. “You don’t want to sit down and plan a funeral. You don’t want to talk to anyone about anything when you feel like you just lost your whole life.”
To help cover those expenses, Brown turned to a new city program called the Emergency Supplemental Victim’s Fund. The Chicago Department of Public Health and the Community Safety Coordination Center launched the $275,000 pilot program last December. Unlike the Illinois’s Crime Victim Compensation Program, which covers a variety of crimes and is based on a delayed reimbursement model, the city’s funding provides money to applicants for basic needs, funerals, or relocation expenses. Residents in five of the city’s 15 high-priority community areas, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, Englewood, West Englewood, and New City, can apply for support, and must do so through advocates at four organizations.
This more targeted approach has proven to work faster than the statewide program, but it reaches significantly fewer people, and pays a maximum of $3,500. From its launch through this September, data requested by The Trace shows that the new program has approved over 80 percent of all applications, compensating almost 200 applicants. During the same time, there have been over 400 shootings in the neighborhoods the program covers, meaning it reached roughly half of the direct survivors who could have been eligible to apply.
Victims’ advocates said they have been able to disperse checks within two weeks of approval. But as funds run out, supporters want to expand the program and make it permanent. As of November 15, according to a city representative, there is $64,000 left.
“There’s a lot of young women out here like myself that probably don’t have insurance on their kids,” Brown said. “We’re not really planning for the future like that, or preparing to bury our child.”
Meeting the goals of Chicago’s emergency fund
When former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office announced the program, it said it was meant to provide quick cash to survivors and their families to combat the immediate financial impact of gun violence. Applicants can request $1,000 to cover basic needs, like rent, groceries, and medical expenses, and can ask for another $1,000 for relocation. According to city data, more than 75 percent of the people who applied for financial help did so for nonfatal shootings. Family members can apply for an additional $1,500 for funeral expenses in the case of fatal shootings. People can apply regardless of immigration status, but are ineligible if they’ve been detained by law enforcement.
Applications are supposed to be approved or denied within seven days of submission and they should receive funding within two weeks. In the 221 applications reviewed by The Trace, all but 13 were approved or denied within seven days. Almost half of the decisions were made on the same day. If approved, the city said people received the full amount requested.
Victims advocates from three of the four designated organizations — Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, and Universal Family Connection — said the majority of their applicants requested the maximum amount and received checks within two weeks. The Trace was not able to reach Centers for New Horizons, the fourth organization.
“Gun violence and its aftereffects really destabilizes the lives of those impacted,” said Stephaney Harris, who administers the program as manager of victim services in Chicago’s Public Health Department. She said it’s imperative to mitigate financial stressors within a few days of a traumatic incident.
The program does not track applicants’ demographics, but the data does show that over 80 percent of firearm victims were Black men, with almost a fifth of them 18 and younger.
Les Jenkins, the victim services program manager for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, said the majority of the Black and brown communities the organization serves are already living paycheck to paycheck. When a shooting happens, he said, it can eat up their life savings.
Five days after Brown’s son died, an advocate from Breakthrough Urban Ministries helped her apply for all three areas of assistance. One day later she was approved for basic needs and funeral expenses. She said she received a $2,500 check before month’s end, but was told there was not enough money to cover relocation.
Data given to The Trace did not show why some people were denied. Relocation expenses received the most denials, with one third of applicants turned down. That category also received the smallest number of applicants, however, with less than 20 percent of participants applying. Robert Winsley, an advocate from Universal Family Connection, said relocation is more complicated because it’s a longer process. But, he added, organizations like his can provide help through their own network and funds. The requirement for residents to apply through a victim advocate allows applicants to not only have a guide through the application process but also receive this additional help.
Brown used all the emergency funds to help cover some of her funeral costs. While her friends and family pitched in to cover the remainder, she was still left with daily expenses. She said Breakthrough Urban Ministries gave her two additional $50 gift cards and helped her find a new apartment.
The funds helped, she said, but losing a child at 26 made her want to give up. The alleged owner of the firearm that killed Jacari, Ramon Sumerlin, has been charged with child endangerment resulting in death and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. Brown’s advocate helped keep her afloat through the foggy haze of her grief. “Your mind is all over the place,” she said. “It’s good to have someone to keep you focused.” Advocates make the application process easy, she added, walking you through every step and helping you collect any needed documents.
Winsley said some organizations receive alerts from police about shootings in their area. They can then match those incident numbers up with applicants’ experiences as proof of their connection to a shooting. This helps sidestep required police reports. But if it is still needed, Winsley said they accompany applicants to obtain those documents.
“[My advocate] is a very good support in a time when you feel like you don’t have no one,” Brown said. “It’s more easy to accept help and listen to someone who can understand or know about a certain thing you’re going through than family and friends.”
Taking the program citywide
Advocates said the biggest complaint they have heard about the program is that it’s not available for more communities.
“It’s disheartening sometimes to tell people: ‘I know you need assistance but the emergency fund does not allot money for that area,’” Winsley said.
Harris said her department, which will determine the program’s future, is looking to expand it to more neighborhoods with high rates of violence. She said they are exploring ways to diversify its funding and also increase the amount of money a person can receive. Additionally, they are considering allowing people who live in the covered neighborhoods to participate — not just those who were shot there. She said Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration has expressed support. A representative of the city said in mid-November that it is finalizing a plan to expand the program for 2024.
When asked about other ways to improve the program, Tashee Poplous, associate director of violence prevention at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, said funeral expenses should be given directly to service providers to avoid any misallocation of funds. She said her organization has received feedback from funeral homes that, even after an applicant receives their funding, they’re not paying off their funeral debt.
Some people working in violence prevention expressed concerns about charging community organizations with guiding applicants, saying it can cause inconsistencies. But advocates said the program’s structure helps them better connect with their clients.
Brown said she would love to see other people receive the same help she has. Her advocate is now helping her apply for statewide compensation to cover her loss of wages, remaining funeral debt, and relocation costs.
“In the time of death you feel like everyone is there,” Brown said. “After the funeral, the texts and calls fade away, the people fade away, everybody gets back to regular life when you are still stuck in a moment.” But when everyone else left, she said, her advocate never left her side.