There is no room at the inn.
The Margarita Inn, that is.
There are no beds at Hilda’s Place, Evanston’s original homeless shelter.
And shelter space at nine Interfaith Action houses of worship is available only in the winter.
“On May 21,” said Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), “after the [Interfaith Action] rotation ended, those who had a place to stay last night” didn’t have one any more.
So while Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9) presented the huge, symbolic check Monday for $2 million to Connections for the Homeless, to help bring beds back to Hilda’s in the future, there is no shelter space available for a man who has been living on Benson Avenue near Clark Street for at least a week.
And there’s also apparently nothing the City can do to move him out, unless he blocks the sidewalk or does something criminally aggressive to a passerby.
While other homeless individuals may be sleeping outside, perhaps in alleys, or in cars, the person on Benson, with worldly his possessions under a tarp/canvas, appears to be the first to recently set up housekeeping outdoors downtown.
His “home” is up against the CTA rail embankment. Stores on Benson are across the street.
It’s not the heart of the business district, but it’s obvious if you walk by. Hardly a plus for a downtown struggling to recover economically from the pandemic.
But Nia Tavoularis, of Connections for the Homeless, told Evanston Now “there is not a shelter for him to go to.”
While that person may symbolize the problem, the issue is far larger.
More than 100 people met Monday afternoon at Lake Street Church, the home of Hilda’s Place, for the check presentation from Evanston’s member of Congress.
A huge negative, Schakowsky told the crowd, is that “we [as a society] have started to tolerate the idea of being unhoused and homeless.”
The previously approved $2 million will help turn Hilda’s Place back into an overnight shelter.
Starting in 1984, Hilda’s was a place where those experiencing homelessness could experience a warm bed instead.
But when COVID hit, the 18-bed shelter was closed. Hilda’s remains, but only as a food/clothing/counseling/medical site, and in daytime hours only.
Betty Bogg, director of Connections for the Homeless, said the $2 million will assist in “re-opening congregate housing shelter” at Hilda’s, “putting beds back on line 365 days a year.”
But getting that overnight shelter in place will not happen overnight.
Connections, which runs both Hilda’s and the Margarita Inn, the hotel turned into a shelter, says $1-$3 million more is needed to fully upgrade Hilda’s for overnight stays, so the upgrade won’t happen for perhaps two years.
Bogg said that based on data from the City, an average of 140 people per night in Evanston need a place to sleep.
But the Margarita only has 70 beds, and it’s full. For now Hilda’s has zero, and the Interfaith churches and synagogues have no beds in the summer.
The Evanston YWCA does have shelter space for those escaping domestic violence, but that’s usually women and children, not single men, and they’re not necessarily homeless.
An organization called Family Promise might have up to a dozen spots, but, as the name states, it’s for families.
And there is a shelter in Arlington Heights. But it does not accept people from Evanston.
Which brings us back to the man on Benson Street, who probably symbolizes other homeless individuals who are not as visible.
Tavoularis told Evanston Now that outreach workers from Connections have been in touch with the person, hoping to help somehow.
Deputy Police Chief Melissa Salcuti told Evanston Now that if the homeless man is on CTA property, and CTA asks him to leave and he refuses, “he can be arrested for tresspass.”
On the other hand, Salcuti said, “if he’s on the public way the police don’t have the right to move him along unless he is interfering with free passage.”
The city code, at 7-2-12-1, makes it illegal to “obstruct or interfere with the free passage of persons or vehicles … or in any way harass or intimidate any person seeking to use said public right of way.”
Refusing a police order to “disperse or to cease” such obstruction is a violation. But if you’re not blocking free passage, you’re OK.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly ruled — in Martin v. Boise in 2018 and in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass earlier this year, which was denied rehearing just last week — that prosecuting the homeless for sleeping in public violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, unless there are sufficient shelter beds to house them all.
That ruling technically only applies to states on the west coast in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction. And it has sparked contrary responses elsewhere, with, for example, Missouri and Tennessee adopting laws that make sleeping or camping on state land a crime and other jurisdictions creating approved campsites, and then barring camping elsewhere.
Here in Evanston, where officials say the number of homeless shelter beds is inadequate to meet the demand, application of the 9th Circuit’s rule would make a ban on sleeping in public illegal.