At Monday evening’s City Council meeting, I expect there will be votes on whether to permit Connections for the Homeless to continue operating a shared housing program at the Margarita Inn on Oak Avenue for individuals experiencing homelessness.
This has been a contentious and drawn-out debate, so I wanted to take this opportunity to contextualize the choice that Council will be facing, as well as to share my own views.
The early days of the pandemic brought with them a confluence of events: economic dislocation caused a rise in housing insecurity, while the public health emergency resulted in the shutting down of congregate living arrangements for the unhoused and for all intents and purposes closed hotels.
As a result, hotels across the country, which otherwise would have sat empty, were put to use as safe, temporary non-congregate housing. The Margarita Inn was one of these.
Like so many necessary decisions in those scary times, this happened very quickly, without necessarily leaving time to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. After almost two years, though, Connections for the Homeless decided to buy the building and seek approval to continue providing services over the long term.
In March of 2022, the City made the determination that Connections needed approval of a “special use” from City Council to continue its operations there. Monday’s meeting will include a vote on this special use, as well as a vote to create a license for this type of shared housing provider (the point being that the granting of a license gives the City stronger oversight).
Over the course of the past year, as Council has moved closer to taking a vote on this issue, it has become very polarizing. Proponents say that we have a homelessness crisis and that Evanston needs a facility like this to provide housing for those in need. Opponents counter that locating it in one of the densest neighborhoods in town, adjacent to the downtown business district, is inherently problematic.
Proponents point out there isn’t an obviously workable alternate location elsewhere in our community. Opponents say that the operation of the Margarita Inn over these last two years has led to deteriorating quality of life in the neighborhood.
I’ve taken all the input on this issue seriously, knowing that it’s sincere and deeply felt. I’ve also done my best to help address some of the issues that have come up.
For instance, the relationship between Connections for the Homeless and the Evanston Police Department was at one point frayed, creating a real roadblock to public safety.
Since then, both entities have devoted a very significant amount of time and attention to opening channels of communication and improving collaboration, leaving us in a better position to properly respond to issues that might arise.
The same can be said of the Good Neighbor Agreement, which was carefully crafted by a coalition of neighbors, members of the downtown business community, Margarita Inn residents, and Connections staff over the last four months and signed Wednesday by myself on behalf of the City of Evanston and Betty Bogg, CEO of Connections for the Homeless.
I think it’s fair to say that some of the opposition to this project is tied to a broader concern about the future of our downtown. While I share some of these concerns, I think it’s especially important to put them in context.
Downtowns across the country (frankly, even around the world) are grappling with the question of what a healthy post-covid economic equilibrium will look like. Remote working has dramatically reduced office populations (and, with them, lunch, coffee, and retail customers).
The labor market, emotional, and viral stressors have generated a massive mental health crisis compounded by severe economic insecurity. A downtown with fewer office workers and more people struggling with financial and mental health challenges is simply going to feel different.
When I raise these points, some people reply by comparing Evanston to Wilmette and Winnetka, whose downtowns don’t seem to have been affected by the same forces. Look, Wilmette and Winnetka are lovely places, but their situations are fundamentally different from ours.
The pandemic didn’t cause them to lose many thousands of office workers (in fact, it caused their daytime population to grow by thousands).
They’re barely served by the CTA, and they aren’t home to an elite university, and these fundamental distinctions bring with them unique opportunities and challenges and will inevitably make Evanston a more welcoming place for people living on the economic margin.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look to all communities, including those to our north, for good ideas. But it does mean that success for downtown Evanston has to be defined on our own terms, based upon our own circumstances, and it will look different than success for downtown Wilmette or downtown Winnetka.
And we’re beginning to build a successful downtown Evanston. A successful downtown Evanston means a reopened movie theater and preparing to welcome Northlight back home. It means new restaurants opening, like Fonda and LeTour, and the Orrington Hotel coming back. It means campus activity restarting and UL moving in and bringing hundreds of jobs.
But most of all, a successful downtown Evanston is one that brings our community’s values to life. That means understanding that every unhoused or mentally ill person or panhandler on the street is first and foremost a human being in need, and establishing services that address that need in a humane and constructive way.
Though this work is far from done, we are taking critical steps, both in the police department and with non-police responses, and by establishing a Living Room to provide services for individuals in mental health crises.
I believe we best live our values by supporting Connections for the Homeless in their application to continue providing services at the Margarita Inn. The homelessness crisis is here, and turning Connections away won’t change that — it will simply diminish our ability to address it in a compassionate and responsible way.
And so, with thanks to the hundreds of community members who’ve taken the time to weigh in on this issue, as well as to City staff and elected officials who have worked diligently on it, and to Connections for the Homeless that has been providing these essential services under such extraordinarily difficult conditions these last few years, I respectfully ask that Council approve these items so that we can continue to build an Evanston that is vibrant, thriving, and welcoming to all.
Biss would make Pinocchio blush, lol…
“A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face…”
– The Blue Fairy (*Pinocchio*, 1940 Disney Film)
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
I think that’s a bit harsh. I actually disagree with Biss’ conclusion myself but appreciate his note. He acknowledges both sides have logical arguments and doesn’t “label” the opposing viewpoint or assume they have bad intentions. (Like you’re doing by assuming he’s lying.) He basically says that there is sound logic in the opposition, but that he himself believes, on balance, the shelter should be allowed at that location. Respectful disagreement is rare in this town and Biss seems to be one of the few that doesn’t immediately scream like a child and call opposing viewpoints crazy. I appreciate that. Even though I disagree with his conclusion as well. (Mostly because CFTH has shown itself to be a poor community partner and operator of the site.)
I believe it is disingenuous for Mayor Biss to promote the Margarita Inn by appealing to “our values “ It is a business make no mistake about it It may be a non-profit but it is still a business. It is taking in money, giving its administrators substantial salaries, while not providing needed services for its residents. Having worked as a social worker running groups in psychiatric nursing homes, I am keenly aware of the kind of services these residents need. At least in the psychiatric nursing homes there were some restrictions. Residents were restricted from going out in the neighborhood until they proved stable enough. And no drugs or alcohol was allowed. The YMCA and the YWCA have strict policies for their residents. Connections for the Homeless takes the money given to them but does not provide for the residents who have mental illness and addiction problems. It is wrong for anyone, especially the mayor, to appeal to our values.
I took offense to his letter too. Why is it not in alignment to Evanston values to want a safe community in exchange for high taxes? Sorry, but I don’t want Evanston to turn into Portland.
100% OPPOSED !
That is not the correct location for a homeless shelter
It’s absurd that the conversation began and has lasted this long
Evanston leaders – get real
I’m so unhappy that we, the “racist nimby” neighbors, are getting this as a permanent entity.
I’ve read the proposed Good Neighbor Agreement and I would absolutely love to know who were the neighbors involved and what businesses were involved.
From what I gather, the whole “Good Neighbor Agreement” process collapsed, and so Connections has crafted the GNA *themselves*… but are now presenting it falsely as a “joint effort” by various parties…
It has no legal standing in any case, it’s just a “pretty piece of paper” that Betty Bogg can crow about…
BTW the Good Neighbor Agreement was revealed by BIss and Bogg the other night at the fancy – schmancy Le Tour restaurant here in downtown Evanston – a basic meal here can run over a hundred bucks. Very poor “optics” I’d say for a homeless services non – profit that is always “poor – mouthing” about never having enough money. Here is the event, from Connections Facebook page:
“Margarita Inn update!
Last night, Mayor Daniel Biss and our own Betty Bogg signed the final Good Neighbor Agreement for the Margarita Inn. This marks an end to several months of hard work from many, including Councilmember Neiuwsma, the working group of residents and business owners that drafted this agreement, and our Connections advocacy team. The signing of this living document is a huge step forward in the process of reaching our goal of purchasing the Margarita Inn, and we thank everyone involved for their dedication…”
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
Yes, I did notice it was quite the event. So fancy.
I’m curious about the members of the draft committee because I’m not only a resident, but also work in the area.
It has been rather quiet, though, aside from a few weekly drug purchases at the corner at Grove and a few ambulance arriving and leaving without sirens (with and without an occupant in the back). No parties, no yelling, even the guy who drives rideshares and blasts music isn’t blasting. I don’t want to jinx it, but the Davis St panhandling crew has been mostly gone. We’ll see once it gets warm though.
It’s been cold out, so of course the residents aren’t outside as much. It makes me sick that I no longer feel safe in the beautiful Merrick Rose Garden.
It seems to me the city would be a lot better off if we stopped granting exemptions and special use permits.
I think there is a fundamental disconnect at play here between what Mr. Biss and our other elected representatives think their roles and responsibilities are, and what the residents of the community actually expect out of their elected representatives.
Mr. Biss and many of our other elected representatives seem to be making decisions guided by their interpretation of our “community values.” Whereas I, and many others in this comment section, think that our elected representatives should focused on their responsibility to provide VALUE to our COMMUNITY.
The primary way they can provide value to our community is by making it a nice place to live. A place where you don’t have to worry that you’re going be robbed or shot. A place where you don’t have vagrants hassling you constantly for money when you’re trying to run errands. Where your children are going to get a good education and not some crazy leftist indoctrination that yields ever declining test scores and school ratings. Where the shopping districts are bustling and vibrant. Where the roads and infrastructure are well maintained. Where business owners can provide valuable goods and services to the community without excessive and stifling governmental regulations. Where the government is spending our money responsibly rather than dithering it away on largesse to favored groups or on unaccountable aspirational goals which serve only pad resumes for future political ambitions.
Mr. Biss and the rest of the city council need to be less worried about their warped view of “community values” and instead need to start actually providing value to our community, which is what they are elected to do. If they don’t, they will soon not be representing us anymore.
Nobody seems to care about representing their ward, especially in the 4th ward. What we have in Evanston is an oligarchy: a small group of people having control of our city. The ‘nobles’ are the mayor, city council, and city staff. They pretend to give issues a fair hearing with Peasant Comment – I mean, Citizen Comment.
But they don’t want the riff-raff, including our merchant class (the small businesses), intervening with what they think is best. That’s why they’ve bypassed the usual process of having this go to the development committee first, and THEN to a vote. Clearly the Royal Court wants to cut down on all that troublesome feedback from Evanston’s unwashed commoners – I mean, taxpayers and minor land owners.
Usually an oligarchy is about wealth, but in our case it’s more like a religious oligarchy. The scales fell from my eyes, so to speak, during the Nov 30 LUC meeting when not one but two ministers led us all in prayer during a city meeting.
“Nobody seems to care about representing their ward, especially in the 4th ward…”
Interestingly, I’ve personally met with three of our Alderpersons about the Margarita Inn issue – but one of those was *not* my 4th Ward Alderman, who did not even respond to my emails and phone calls…
The three alderpersons I met with were willing to listen. Their views might differ from mine, but they valued my time and input – which means *something* to me and eases a bit of my frustrations. I heartily thanked them for that and their integrity…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
That’s good to hear! I was too quick to paint everyone with the same brush.
Very well said, David!
Our city officials and non – profits need to be asking themselves how any proposed project will bring “added value” to our community. The Margarita Inn will definitely *not* bring any “added value” – except to those who bask and luxuriate in their “virtue signaling”… and for the rest of us, the Margarita is definitely a “burden” on our scarce resources and on our quality of life…
OTOH they turn a blind eye to our tax – paying citizens and businesses who contribute money, employment and other benefits to Evanston – they are painted as “the bad guys” – with Betty Bogg and Ald. Reid & Company even calling us “racist”…
Connections for the Homeless, in the case of the Margarita Inn, is a “taker”…
Places like the YMCA, YWCA, Curt’s Café (an excellent workforce non – profit that trains “at -risk” youth for culinary careers), the Evanston Youth Job Center and others are “non – profits” – but they all bring great “added value” to Evanston because they “grow equity” by promoting economic growth and social stability…
These organizations are “givers”…
Gregory Morrow – 4th Ward resident
You get what you vote for.
This PR offensive by Biss is a bit weird (he also sent this missive through the city’s email list).
He doesn’t even vote on the proposal unless he has to break a tie on the 9 person council so his position is kind of immaterial.
Well you do have to give Mayor Biss an A+ on Public Relations Small business owner Amy Morton appeared at a meeting opposing his “work week “ regulation. So he holds this meeting at her restaurant!
I’m so pleased that the gentleman that generously offered to sell me heroin by the urine soaked Davis Street Metra tunnel will be able to stay in town full time (yes, he lives at Marg Inn). I’m certain businesses like Bennisons, Guidepost, Davis Pantry, and Gigios in will benefit from continued loitering and panhandling outside their establishments, driving away foot traffic from families avoiding the area. But seriously, my condolences to the local business owners, who really ought to consider relocating to Skokie or Wilmette, where parking is free, plastic bags are provided gratis, and local officials put the interests of their residents and business owners ahead of their personal agendas and feelings.
The approach both Mayor Biss and Alderman Nieuwsma have taken this week is wrong, unethical, and underhanded. They are not listening to “both sides” of this issue, they haven’t done any in-depth homework or studies, and they (and our city) lack full understanding and comprehension of what the ramifications are likely to be by letting Connections for the Homeless operate a low-barrier, housing first, 70 + bed homeless shelter (plus Hilda’s Place) anywhere in our city.
Mayor Biss does not deserve any credit for his claim that he has listened to all commentary and input, as he told me to my face that I was in the minority with concerns I raised about the escalation of aggressive panhandling, vagrancy, and the increase in crime over the past several years.
And shame on Alderman Nieuwsma for once again threatening a tent city along the lake should we decide not to allow Connections to continue to run their homeless shelter. Connections’ shelter at Margarita is a magnet attracting countless “homeless” to Evanston where they can take, take, take, disrupt, commit crimes like theft and assault, deal drugs, and prey on residents as well as those truly unhoused individuals. If Margarita Inn is currently filling a need, please explain why so many “homeless” are still sleeping on our streets, sleeping in the entrances of so many of our downtown buildings, hanging out on the third floor of our main library, hanging out at Whole Foods on Chicago, and on and on and on.
Let us not forget the Alderman Devon Reid had over $9,000 of back rent (he was about to be evicted ) paid for by Connections for the Homeless.
Ethically he should recuse himself from the vote, let’s see what happens.
On the left side of the Margarita is a section 8 building. Some of the yelling at night is often coming from that building from a drunk man taunting the residents of the Margarita. At the corner of the street is a senior citizen building where the firefighters keep coming in and out. Across the street stands the ugliest residential building of Evanston . The neighborhood is not really high end. That Glass Museum place had to absorb that before getting a good price I am sure before buying tearing up and building their place. Margarita location is perfect for a shelter, much better than the one on Howard.
That said it is true that Evanston represents 7% of the North Shore population while accommodating 35% of its homeless population -all coming from Chicago. It is true that a majority of Margarita residents comes from Chicago.
I think the special permit should be given but the City should have some power. I asked: if the City was operating the shelter would they let this happen? Could they let drug dealing, alcohol abuse, prostitution happen?
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