More than 200 people crowded into St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Sunday to engage in an intense and, at times, emotional discussion about plans involving an Evanston hotel that has been housing people on an emergency basis during the pandemic.
The Margarita Inn, 1566 Oak Ave., began serving as housing for homeless people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Evanston and other municipalities asked hotels to take in people who had been living in shelters.
Evanston-based nonprofit Connections for the Homeless facilitated the arrangement and now seeks to convert the hotel into a permanent facility that could serve up to 63 people in 41 rooms.
Some community members who spoke at the meeting felt that Connections for the Homeless should go through the zoning process before enacting such a momentous change. They also stressed the need for a study to evaluate how a facility for the homeless would impact the community.
But others, including former residents of the Margarita Inn, said the services provided are invaluable.
One man said when he first came to Evanston, he was depressed and had lost everything.
He said if it weren’t for Connections for the Homeless, he isn’t sure where he would be. Staff watched over those in their care, but also befriended them, he said. With rest and support, he was able to get back up. Now, he said, he has a job and a commercial driver’s license.
Charles Austin, though, said he has lived on Lake Street for 35 years. Every time he wants to make a change to his historic house, he has to get zoning approval, and he believes the Margarita Inn should do the same.
Austin also said he has been verbally attacked while walking along Oak Street. Community members should be heard before this decision is made, he said.
Pandemic changed hotel’s operations
Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, who organized and led the meeting, gave background on the history of the matter, beginning by explaining that Connections for the Homeless began sheltering vulnerable populations at Margarita Inn in March 2020 while the city was under a state of emergency declared by Illinois officials.
In May 2019, the city had discovered that the Margarita Inn owed $477,972 in back taxes, including from a hotel tax and a parking tax.
When the pandemic hit, a need for additional housing emerged, and the city of Evanston agreed that Pure Investments, Inc., which owns the hotel, could pay off the debt by partnering with Connections for the Homeless.
Betty Bogg, executive director at Connections for the Homeless, said before the city suggested Connections for the Homeless occupy the Margarita Inn, the nonprofit had never considered using hotel rooms to support the homeless.
“Once we were able to place people in the Margarita Inn, we saw for ourselves the difference that made in their lives,” Bogg said.
How the Margarita Inn differs
Bogg said the Margarita Inn does not function like a normal homeless shelter. Normally, those staying in homeless shelters are expected to leave during the day. At the Margarita Inn, residents have their own bed, closet and bathroom, and aren’t expected to leave during the day.
One of the first people to stay at the Margarita Inn was a woman who slept on the train while going through chemotherapy, Bogg said. Just a couple weeks after the woman moved into the facility, Connections for the Homeless received a call from the woman’s oncology nurse, who said there was already a huge difference in the woman’s health.
Currently, the average length of stay at the Margarita Inn is 289 days, or about 10 months, and the majority of those who leave exit into stable housing, Bogg said. Of the residents currently at the Margarita Inn, 68% are Evanston residents.
The waitlist for the facility is typically between 50 and 80 people long. Bogg explained that the waitlist is considered “dynamic” and that those on the waitlist who are most vulnerable are prioritized.
Bogg said Black men older than 60 make up 40% of the residents, Black women older than 60 make up 20% and female heads of household with children make up 10%. The other 30% fit into some other category, she said.
Throughout 2021, Connections for the Homeless kept 1,700 people from becoming homeless through eviction prevention, Bogg said. That same year, the nonprofit kept 500 people housed who would otherwise be homeless, and sheltered an additional 187 people at the Margarita Inn, 37 of whom were children.
Police data shows uptick in calls
According to police data presented by Nieuwsma and Interim Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington, there has been an uptick in police calls from the Margarita Inn within the last two years.
Data showed the police department reported 13 calls in 2017, 16 calls in 2018 and 11 calls in 2019. The number of calls jumped to 157 in 2020, and 236 in 2021. Of last year’s calls, 118 were classified as directed area patrol, 40 included ambulance calls, and 15 reported a disturbance, officials said.
The calls made at the Margarita Inn were then compared with calls made at Hilda’s Place, where Connections for the Homeless operates an 18-bed overnight shelter for men in the basement of the Lake Street Church. At Hilda’s Place, the number of calls grew from 20 in 2017 to 92 last year. At the church, listed separately in the data presented, the number of calls fluctuated between 20 and 36 calls over the last five years.
Eddington said all Evanston hotels received an uptick in calls, but the Margarita Inn experienced the largest increase.
Connections for the Homeless weighed three options
On Feb. 15, the city issued a violation notice informing Connections for the Homeless that changes must be made to the current circumstances, though no deadline was given for those changes to take place.
City officials said there are three options should the nonprofit desire to continue operations in the Margarita Inn.
For the first option, the city suggested that the nonprofit see if its plans for the hotel fall within the scope of the current zoning code. Although the Margarita Inn functions as a hotel, it’s technically a “rooming house,” Nieuwsma explained. This zoning title is tied to the property, not the owner, he added.
According to city code, a rooming house is a building with “lodging rooms that accommodate more than three persons who are not members of the keeper’s family, and where lodging, excluding food service, is provided for compensation.” The city may deem the nonprofit’s plans fit the definition of a “rooming house.”
For the second option, Connections for the Homeless could request that the city approve Margarita Inn as a “transitional shelter,” which provides sleeping accommodations for the homeless on an emergency basis, according to the city code.
For the Margarita Inn to become a “transitional shelter,” Connections for the Homeless would need to go through the regular special-use permitting process, which involves a staff review by the Design and Project Review committee, a review by the Land Use Commission, and a vote by the City Council, Nieuwsma said.
The third option involves requesting that the city rewrite the city code so that the definition of a “transitional shelter” matches what the nonprofit hopes to do with the hotel. This option would still require the Margarita Inn to undergo a special-use permitting process.
The nonprofit selected the first option proposed by the city, and submitted an application to the zoning department on Feb. 21 to determine whether the nonprofit’s plan for the facility falls within the scope of a rooming house zoning code. If the application is approved, the nonprofit would be able to continue its operations at the Margarita Inn.
“There is no public engagement requirement for this process,” Nieuwsma acknowledged, but added that many community members would have questions and concerns about the plan. He asked the zoning staff not to make a decision until a community discussion occurs.
On March 14, Nieuwsma plans to submit a memo to the zoning administrator summarizing concerns expressed at Sunday’s meeting.
If the zoning department approves the nonprofit’s application after taking the memo into account, the city will outline a “memorandum of understanding” laying out the operations and any conditions.
Nieuwsma added the zoning administrator could deny the application, in which case Connections for the Homeless would need to pursue one of the other options in order to continue operating the Margarita Inn.
Regardless of whether the zoning department approves the application or not, Nieuwsma said he will coordinate community meetings to help put together a “good neighbor’s Agreement” outlining the expectations community members have and what the nonprofit needs to do to be a good neighbor.
All are invited to these meetings, which will take place virtually and in-person at the Margarita Inn at 4 p.m. on March 27, April 24 and May 22.
The community weighs in
Another former resident said she is very proud of Evanston and feels like she was rescued from her circumstances.
Both the staff and residents were extremely supportive, she said, and the Margarita Inn felt like a community.
A current resident at the Margarita Inn spoke up as well. He said homelessness has never been as bad as it is now.
“When you get on the Red Line [el train], you have all kinds of weirdos at night. I’m a black man, and I’m scared,” he said.
But he said he has never witnessed any incidents around Margarita Inn.
“We need housing for the homeless,” he concluded.
Cameel Halim, the owner of the Halim Time and Glass Museum, spoke up about an incident in which Margarita Inn residents sat outside the museum, and, when asked to leave, broke some lighting fixtures.
Bogg responded that the nonprofit met with Halim after the incident and added that there “haven’t [been] any incidents since that one time over a year ago.” Connections for the Homeless wants to be a good neighbor, she added.
Halim stressed again the need for a zoning hearing. He added that perhaps Connections for the Homeless should build a structure in a place “where people welcome you,” a comment that drew boos from the audience.
Another community member spoke about living with mental illnesses and depression, and emphasized that some of the individuals living in the Margarita Inn deal with mental illness on top of homelessness.
A community member asked if the “good neighbor agreement” could be legally binding, and Bogg replied, “yes.”
Abigail Stone, a former resident of a Connections for the Homeless facility, made the last public comment. With a microphone in hand, Stone walked down the room’s center aisle, joined by her sons Isaiah and Judah.
When her marriage turned abusive, Connections for the Homeless supported her and helped her find housing, she said. Now, she advocates for those who, like her, would be homeless if not for organizations like Connections for the Homeless.