Evanston City Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma has been holding public meetings to address concerns raised by Fourth Ward residents that aggressive and antisocial behavior is increasing near Grey Park, on the northeast corner of Main Street and Ridge Avenue.
Police data from the last few years reflect some of these concerns. The number of 911 and nonemergency calls made in all of Evanston involving panhandling has been steadily growing since 2018. There have also been recent incidents of burglary, criminal damage and indecent exposure, as well as four back-to-back break-ins on Main Street in September, Evanston Police Commander Ryan Glew confirmed.
In interviews with the RoundTable, several Evanstonians said they have lived near Grey Park for years and always loved it, but now feel there’s been a change.
Grey Park neighbors who attended a community meeting Nieuwsma held Sept. 30 at Robert Crown Community Center reported concerning behavior, including aggressive panhandling and stalking, as well as unsanitary behavior, including public defecation and urination. Some also said they witnessed individuals harassing children and targeting LGBTQ+ individuals.
Some neighbors said Grey Park no longer feels like a safe place. Some also said they worry about their children, who are unsettled by some of the behavior they witness.
Neighbors also mentioned that trash and broken glass litter the area, that the panhandlers are aggressive and approach their homes, and that there are individuals following and threatening them. Evanston resident Phil Jungmann said he has seen individuals sitting outside next to puddles of urine and vomit.
Nieuwsma said it isn’t entirely clear who is causing these issues and why there’s been an uptick in this kind of behavior, but he said discussions surrounding the recent issues should certainly involve Albany Care, a psychiatric rehabilitation clinic just east of Grey Park.
According to police data, there’s been an increase in calls specifically involving Albany Care residents, particularly about panhandling, trespassing and disorderly conduct.
In 2020, the department received 132 emergency and nonemergency calls involving the facility. This is up from 104 calls in 2019, 42 calls in 2018, and 35 calls in 2017. At the Sept. 30 meeting, a police representative said the department had already received 104 calls about Albany Care this year.
Mayor Daniel Biss, who has been working alongside Nieuwsma, said that although a significant number of the recent issues are connected to Albany Care, pressure needs to be put on the facility, not its residents. The neighbors agree, he said.
Biss said of the Grey Park neighbors he has spoken with, the vast majority have taken pains to say they support providing care and services to community members with a mental illness, and that it is the provider that may need re-examining.
“The job that they do is difficult, sensitive and important,” Biss said. “If they don’t do it properly, that means they’re not serving their residents appropriately, and simultaneously exposing the rest of the residents to unacceptable levels of public safety challenges.”
The uptick in concerning behavior follows a licensing change the facility underwent in 2017, when it shifted from serving as an intermediate care facility to being a Specialized Mental Health Rehabilitation Facility (SMHRF).
As an intermediate care facility, Albany Care accepted some patients with mental illnesses, but as a SMHRF, it began accepting patients with a dual diagnosis – those with mental illness as well as a second disorder, typically addiction.
The facility, which can house up to 417 residents, is regulated and licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The company S.I.R. Management is the consultant organization for Albany Care as well as Greenwood Care, another SMHRF at 1406 Chicago Ave. As there are only 20 SMHRFs in all of Illinois, Evanston currently has 10% of the statewide total.
“A lot of these services that Evanston offers are actually here in the Fourth Ward. Not exclusively, but disproportionately,” Nieuwsma said. “So we are seeing the impact here that other neighborhoods and Evanston [as a whole] aren’t necessarily feeling.”
Nieuwsma said he wants to work alongside the facility going forward and return to a state where Albany Care is a good neighbor to the community.
Officials at Albany Care did not respond to the RoundTable’s repeated requests for an interview. However, Patrick Baalke, who provides operational consultation to Albany Care, wrote a memo to the RoundTable. Baalke is the Chief Operating Officer at Generations Healthcare Network, of which S.I.R. Management is a subsidiary.
In his memo, Baalke said that Albany Care needs to become a more active partner in the community. “We recognize that the social and economic impacts of the last few years have put uncomfortable pressure on our public services, community resources, and healthcare providers,” Baalke wrote.
He added that the facility is grateful to have the opportunity to work in Evanston and serve adults experiencing chronic and serious mental illness.
Mental health facilities badly needed
During the campaign season a year ago, Nieuwsma went door-to-door, and he said his heart warmed listening to community members describe their appreciation for Albany Care. The neighbors welcomed the facility’s residents into the community and really understood the support that it provided, he said.
“There’s a tremendous shortage of both affordable and supportive housing for people with mental illness, and for that reason, places like Albany Care are needed,” said Nathaniel Ekman, Executive Director of the Cook County North Suburban affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
People with a mental illness also have extremely high unemployment rates, which makes supporting themselves and finding housing very difficult, Ekman said. In fact, a 2014 NAMI report compiled data about individuals served in public mental health systems and found that, in Illinois, 83.2% of such individuals were unemployed.
“We need to invest much more in community-based mental health services,” Ekman said. “When we take care of our most vulnerable citizens, we are stronger as a community.”
Albany Care residents and the community
Albany Care residents have always been a part of the community, said Renee Moses, who has lived in the area for 43 years. Prior to a recent change in management, the facility was responsive to any concerns raised by residents, and the residents were familiar, she said.
Moses said at one point, she hired one of the residents who was trying to save up money to move out. He helped shovel snow until he was able to move into his own apartment, she said.
“Nobody wanted the facility gone,” Moses said, “but now, because of the change in the population and the kinds of problems, there’s a whole different sensibility and attitude.”
Moses said some of her neighbors are considering moving out of the Fourth Ward.
Multiple issues involved
Residents at a facility like Albany Care should be clean, taken care of and properly medicated, Ekman said. If it seems a facility isn’t doing a good job of taking care of residents, that needs to be taken up with management, he added.
If the people near Grey Park are from Albany Care and aren’t getting the support they need, are not properly treated and don’t have constructive things to do, the facility should be looked at, said Sue Loellbach, the Manager of Advocacy at Connections for the Homeless, a local organization working to end homelessness.
Connections for the Homeless hasn’t been particularly involved with issues in Grey Park, but it serves any individuals with housing-related problems, and a lot of homeless people congregate in the park, said Loellbach, who attended the Sept. 30 meeting at Nieuwsma’s invitation.
The issues that Grey Park neighbors have noted involve more than just Albany Care residents and management. Outside individuals have also played a part, as has the pandemic, which led to an increase in mental health issues and homelessness nationwide, Nieuwsma said.
The COVID-19 shutdown led many of the businesses that were friendly to homeless individuals, like the downtown Burger King and the Panera Bread, to close, Nieuwsma said. Without these businesses, homeless individuals don’t have as easy access to a bathroom, he added.
There is a huge shortage of public restrooms and housing, and some of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money should go toward ensuring homeless people have a place to use the bathroom and a safe place to live, Loellbach said.
Albany Care must devise a plan going forward, and must be willing to make the investment to actually follow through, Biss said. This needs to be the first step, but the city and the state need to work alongside the facility, he added. The state, specifically, has a key role to play as a funder through Medicaid and a licensor, he said.
The city is also working with the Police Department to ensure there’s an appropriate, responsible and sensitive reaction, Biss said.
Nieuwsma said he wants to make sure groups and departments such as Connections for the Homeless, the city’s Health and Human Services Department and the Police Department are all aware of what’s happening in the Fourth Ward. The city’s services are disproportionately and densely packed in that area, so organizational stakeholders in other parts of Evanston may not be aware of these issues, he said.
Nieuwsma said he will also keep hosting meetings to give neighbors a space to share their experiences, and to help the city and stakeholders strategize an appropriate solution.
Biss said he has been impressed and moved by Grey Park neighbors who have had some very serious and upsetting experiences recently, but still recognize the need for Albany Care and support a facility like this in their neighborhood.
“Even in that mental space they are taking pains to say, ‘Listen, we want to be the kind of community that provides services for individuals suffering from mental illness, and we believe that it can be done in a way that’s also consistent with the safety of neighbors,’” Biss said.