An attorney for Connections for the Homeless claims a city denial of the group’s request for a special use permit to continue to operate the Margarita Inn as a homeless shelter would likely violate federal law.

In an email included in materials submitted for next Wednesday’s Land Use Commission hearing, Donna Pugh, of Foley & Lardner LLP, says “people suffering from mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction may be considered a protected class under the Fair Housing Act” if their impairments substantially limit one or more major life activities.

Donna Pugh, speaking at a Land Use Commission meeting on Nov. 9.

The email adds that “64% of Margarita participants are qualified individuals” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.”

Pugh says, “Many Margarita participants are recovering drug addicts or recovering alcoholics, or are living with physical or mental illness, whose disability has inhibited major life functions, to the extent that they have become homeless.”

“In addition, the majority of participants are people of color and fall into a protected class under the FHA on the basis of race,” she says, adding that “other protections under the U.S. Constitution are afforded to such participants, and, if an equal-protection claim were raised, a court would review such claims under strict scrutiny.”

A Department of Justice webpage summarizing the Fair Housing Act that Pugh cites in her email says, “Current users of illegal controlled substances, persons convicted for illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance, sex offenders, and juvenile offenders are not considered disabled under the Fair Housing Act, by virtue of that status.”

It also says, “The Fair Housing Act affords no protections to individuals with or without disabilities who present a direct threat to the persons or property of others. Determining whether someone poses such a direct threat must be made on an individualized basis, however, and cannot be based on general assumptions or speculation about the nature of a disability.”

Some neighbors have been objecting to Connections continued use of the former hotel since the group announced plans last March to buy the property. The neighbors claim the homeless shelter has added to police calls, drug dealing and panhandling problems in the neighborhood.

The special Land Use Commission meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council chambers at the Civic Center.

The LUC will make a recommendation to the City Council on whether to issue the special use permit for the property at 1566 Oak Ave.,

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. I am wondering how it would be considered illegal per the Fair Housing Act if as quoted above the individuals struggling with substance abuse are NOT considered disabled and are NOT afforded protection under the Act.
    My concern in housing so many individuals together without and transparency of the support they would receive is that those really trying to be clean would have continuous or regular exposure to other residents who are actively using. No recovery home could successfully operate under those conditions. Early recovery requires a safe environment and the MI is not sounding like it would provide that.
    If upwards of 60% of residents are having substance abuse issues this should be considered if we are truly hoping to help the homeless whom we shelter to be able to begin and maintain their sobriety.
    I actually would fully support a recovery home in the MI but my understanding is the usual criteria is a zero tolerance policy to keep the others in the setting safe. It really is that important.

  2. Having worked for Connections this past Spring, and much of that time out of the Margarita, I was **shocked** that alcohol use – per CFTH agency policy – is expressly allowed (*see below). Additionally, all Margarita staff are trained to use Narcan, which is an antidote for opioid overdoses…

    The chaos and danger fomented by the resident Margarita substance abusers is hardly conducive to the Margarita Inn being a “safe space” for *anyone* – not just those struggling with recovery, but for all Margarita guests, Margarita staff, and of course our Evanston community. One of the reasons I left my position there (SSDI Benefits Specialist) was that I found working in such a dysfunctional atmosphere intolerable; morally, I could not work for an organization that hews to the failed “Do No Harm” social work policy that enables and supports addiction, and thus all the subsequent accompanying heartbreak…

    Our Evanston community, the hard – working Margarita Inn frontline staff (and they are top – notch!), and most especially our homeless brothers and sisters who are struggling to overcome their addiction, mental health, and other challenges deserve *far* better than what Betty Bogg and her management team are offering. It’s embarrassing to me (I work in the “helping professions”, in workforce development) that with all of Connection’s monetary and staff resources that their current inhumane “model” is the best they could come up with. Their policies simply beggar common sense – an effective residential homeless shelter program *must* be a “clean and sober” facility…

    In short, Connections, with their flawed and dangerous Margarita Inn operating policies, is *not* part of the solution, but part of the *problem*…

    Below, their alcohol use policies:

    *Alcohol use by Margarita Inn residents is allowed per the CFTH “Shelter Participant Handbook”. A copy of this is on public record (as presented to the Evanston Land Use Commission meeting on 05/11/2022), and the complete Handbook (along with the accompanying meeting record) can be found on pp. 103 – 149 at this link below (PDF):

    City of Evanston – Land Use Commission – Wednesday, May 11, 2022

    ‘Connections For the Homeless – Shelter Participant Handbook [Revised 01.15.2022]’

    H. Alcohol + Other Substances [page 7]:

    “ALCOHOL IS ALLOWED IN THE SHELTER but may only be consumed in your room. At no time is open alcohol permitted in any common area, including the hallways, Courtyard, or anywhere outside on the shelter property. Non-prescription substances that are illicit/illegal are not allowed anywhere in the Shelter, including in individual rooms, or on the property…”

  3. I started following this story with no opinion. Now that they have issued what sounds to me like a thinly veiled threat of a lawsuit, I definitely don’t want to see them get what they want. Trying to make it a racial issue does not help either.

  4. What about the rights of people who buy or rent near the Inn and have to accommodate our lives around the drug use, open urinating, harassment by some of the Inn residents, the litter, the pan handling and more. What about our rights too? Many of us are also of protected status?

  5. The legal argument put forth by Connection’s lawyer is just plain bullying. So much for being a good neighbor. This should put everyone notice that Connections will litigate everything.

  6. As an attorney, I find the argument made by Connections counsel that denial of a special use permit would equate to a violation of FHA regulations is a little misplaced. Yes, the FHA does indeed protect people from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability etc. – but the zoning hearings are not about Evanston’s attempted circumvention of equal rights – it is about a legal process for zoning of which any business owner would have to undertake (in the legal world we call this “similarly situated”). Connections for the Homeless itself is not a protected class of anything; it is a not-for-profit business whose allocations of the money they receive from the federal government would be under scrutiny if they denied equal access to a homeless person housing because of their protected status (or if there was a disparate impact on a group). Connections for the Homeless is a business and should they obtain their zoning, and violate FHA regulations, a lawsuit would be directed toward them. What Connections for the Homeless attorney just did was muddy the waters with our good faith Good Neighbor Agreement we have all been working towards. Connections appear to be strong arming Evanston and its residents into a race and disability-based divide that is not legally accurate. We all know that casting hate and dividing people is an effective tool for outrage, but I believe the people of Evanston embrace democracy and a fair process without name calling or threats.

    1. Thanks for explaining this, I was pretty confused at the legalese but their argument didn’t seem quite right. Based on your comment, this is what I understand:

      – A lawsuit would apply if the ‘landlord’ (Connections) denied space in the shelter to ‘tenants’ based on race/addiction/mental health issues. That *would* be discrimination.

      – But Connections, the company, does not have protected status. They are like any other business owner that wants to put their business somewhere that requires rezoning.

      – Does this mean that Connections is operating illegally / unlawfully, on the hopes that they’ll get the rezoning? If they don’t get it, does that mean they have to go somewhere else?

      Maybe that’s why they’re so desperate to hold onto this location, because they have no alternative location or plan. It makes me wonder: even if they did get the zoning go-ahead, what would happen if something occurred in the building (like a fire or whatever), and they were forced to move? Would they just abandon everyone under their care because they don’t have a Plan B? The whole thing seems pretty fragile.

      1. Katherine, there is absolutely *no* “Plan B”, they have never seriously considered another location. I’m gobsmacked by the poor planning and just plain incompetence of Connections management in this whole process of wanting to acquire the Margarita. My career has been in non – profits, and I’ve seen plenty of misguided blunderings by various organizations, but Connections simply “takes the cake” in this regard… they are doing *everything* wrong. I don’t know if it is from ignorance, malfeasance, or what – very puzzling!

        If the Margarita Inn were run responsibly, I’d welcome them into our community. It’s especially heartbreaking, as they’ve large sums of money and many qualified staff; smaller organizations would *kill* to have those bounteous resources. But no, Connections has chosen go the “lowest common denominator” route…

        At least we can look on the *bright side* for one thing – early in the pandemic, Connections took over the Orrington Hotel and used it as a shelter. That they are not still there is *some* comfort…

  7. The act of Connections tells you everything you need to know about what it would be like after tgey get their license – they would take the position that no matter how they fsiled to show themselves to be good neighbors, there us nothing we can do to get them out. Giving them a license just gives them one more layer of defense making it that much harder to obtain compliance. It is time for the City to bring an end to this very very bad idea.

  8. Connections starting to show their true colors—-
    Proposed concept of being good neighbors is a fallacy and temporary housing for those in need is actually a drug rehab facility. The time for continued negotiations with Connections has expired—-the Margarita plan isn’t going to work—-Opposition from those that matter most is overwhelming, the lawfully minded tax paying residents of Evanston are saying no!. Put the building out for bidding to see if any investors want to buy and maintain facility as a B&B—-Connections isn’t some kind of benevolent do-gooder organization—-their a business trying to make money and be damned if many of their residents wreak havoc on the city—-which already has proven many do. Temporary housing for those in need until they get back on their feet is a great idea and welcome addition to the city—-but this isn’t anything close to that—end further negotiations with Connections NOW!

  9. The logic in this argument, made by one of Chicago’s most well know attorneys, shows clearly why the community has not participated in the Good Neighbor Agreement. Now that I think about it, the first meeting that had in the Church was the same way. They bully opposition, they hold meetings on their turf, they accuse those who think differently if being racist, of being NIMBYS. This is not the behavior of a group that respects and wants to work with the community.

    1. Ms. Allen, as a former Connections for the Homeless employee, I can assure you that your observations are 100% spot – on. The “Good Neighbor Agreement” is a joke, I’ve seen the rough draft; in any case it’s not legally enforceable. Specifically, as far as Connections ensuring the “safety” of their Margarita guests, staff, and the surrounding neighborhood, IMO they are criminally negligent. Even in the short three months I was in their employ, the number of violent incidents (not just at the Margarita, but also at their Hilda’s Place and 2121 Dewey facilities), and specifically, they way that Margarita management “handled” them was shocking – they do not have any effective safety protocols in place. After one incident, when a crazed vagrant came into Hilda’s Place with a knife and created a dangerous ruckus, management’s reaction was to make us watch a “crisis intervention” video, and then “role play” what we would do (!). Absurd, but that is their mindset. This is another reason why I quickly left Connections, as I did not feel safe on their premises…

      Any “racist” accusations against Margarita detractors are of course nonsensical. The Margarita is a very dangerous place – so why should anyone in great need, and especially our citizens of color, be subject to such squalid conditions? I know that Connections ED Betty Bogg, Program Director Tina White, and Director of Development & Communications Nia Tavoularis (all white) would not for a second put up with the conditions under which Margarita guests live. That they are playing the race card is despicable. These are three women “of privilege” who’ve not an inkling of how “the other half” really lives and struggles… instead they think that “designing programs” from a “Do No Harm” social work curriculum is “helping” others. In fact, it’s condescending and insulting to those who are in need…

  10. I was formerly a supporter of Connections, with both my time and money, but due to some of their policies I have looked for other ways to support needy individuals in the community. This bullying tactic is yet another reason I can no longer support them. My company uses Foley and Larder and a typical billing rate for a partner is $700-$800 per hour. Ms Pugh may be giving Connections a reduced rate or doing this work pro bono, but a big firm won’t do the same for the neighbors here who have a legitimate complaint. Therefore, no matter how weak Pugh’s argument, as others have pointed out, to fight her and the considerable resources of Foley, the neighbors would need to invest significantly in legal representation, which I doubt they can afford to do. Connections is not being a cooperative partner here and this action just reinforces that fact.

  11. Just as an FYI, as I don’t know where else to document, this past Saturday evening, there were EPD/EFD vehicles in front of the facility with flashing lights and sirens. I wasn’t able to glance out the window to see if anyone/who was loaded in and transported away, but I would assume that their leaving with sirens blasting meant there was an occupant loaded into the ambulance. I guess I’ll start a spreadsheet to document this. Maybe time to put a spare camera pointed towards a tree and have that add to all the stress this organization has caused me.

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