The Margarita Inn remains mostly unchanged since Evanston nonprofit Connections for the Homeless began operating a shelter within the hotel two years ago under an emergency declaration.
The morning of March 18, Connections for the Homeless Director of Development Nia Tavoularis gave the RoundTable a tour of the building.
She said a rumor circulated that the hotel’s interior was stripped to the bones during its transformation into a shelter.
But the building at 1566 Oak Ave. maintains much of its former charm, with dark carpeting, ornate picture frames and a touch of midnight blue in nearly every room.
The building is currently home to 61 people, including seven children. The average length of stay is 10 months, after which the majority of residents go on to live in stable housing, Tavoularis said.
Last year, the Margarita Inn served 187 people, 68% of them Evanstonians. The hotel has 41 rooms, some of them private and some shared by roommates, and there are at least two staff members within the facility overnight and more throughout the day.
Connections for the Homeless officials plan to apply for a special-use permit to take over the hotel permanently. In the meantime, the nonprofit will continue operating the shelter.
On March 13, the city hosted a public meeting to discuss the nonprofit’s plans for the Margarita Inn. While some community members stood in strong support of the plan, others opposed it, expressing concerns that a permanent shelter may lead to an increase in disturbances and police calls, which have already increased over pre-pandemic totals.
Sue Loellbach, the nonprofit’s Manager of Advocacy, joined Friday’s tour and spoke to the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon, in which individuals may support more housing for the homeless but don’t want shelters in their neighborhoods.
It’s natural for people not to want something in their community that they find troubling or difficult, Loellbach said.
Some neighbors have come forward claiming they’re not a NIMBY, but saying that they don’t think a shelter belongs in this community, Loellbach said.
When speaking with these neighbors, she responds with, “You are a NIMBY, and that’s OK. Let’s figure out how we can address this,” she said.
Other neighbors have said the city doesn’t need more housing facilities and that Evanston, home to residential facilities Greenwood Care and Albany Care, is already doing its part.
Tavoularis said Connections for the Homeless operates differently from Albany Care. Although the mental health facility provides some critical services, it is a private organization that ultimately makes a profit off its facility, unlike Connections for the Homeless, which is a nonprofit working to end homeless in Evanston.
“Homelessness is a solvable problem,” Tavoularis said.
For most people who experience homelessness, it is a short episode in their life, not a permanent state of being, added Loellbach.
Current resident Larry Black, 32, said if it weren’t for the Margarita Inn, he would probably be on the streets. Because of the shelter, he can take care himself and shower while he searches for a job and tries to get back on his feet.
“I’m very thankful,” he said.
Another resident, Paul, 60, said he feels comfortable and supported at the Margarita Inn. If he has a problem he can’t solve, he talks to a counselor. When he’s hungry, there’s food.
Paul, who preferred not to use his last name, said that, before coming to the shelter, his life had been in a steep downward spiral. He said he had developed a bad attitude and began arguing with his wife, who left him two weeks before Christmas. He lost his job and his car, and ended up homeless, he said.
“It was like I stepped off a cliff,” he said.
The Margarita Inn allowed Paul to straighten his life out, and he just started a new job, he said.
“This place has helped me find a lot,” he said. “How to recover, how to be restored.”
A more effective model
At most homeless shelters, people must leave during the day. This is stressful and undignified for those at the shelter, and it forces them into the street during the day, Tavoularis said.
Connections for the Homeless followed this model at its first shelter, Hilda’s Place, located in the basement of the Lake Street Church. Case managers worked to find housing for those at the shelter, but when housing became available, it was often difficult for the nonprofit to find the person who needed the housing.
“If they’re wandering around trying to figure out where to stay safe, dry and warm, we can’t find them,” said Loellbach. “It costs people their housing to not have a place that they can be found at.”
At the Margarita Inn, residents are healthier, rested and more able to work with case managers to end their homelessness, Tavoularis said.
Three meals a day, every day
Connections for the Homeless provides three meals a day, seven days a week. A quarter of these meals are purchased from local restaurants, and the rest are provided by volunteers and volunteer groups, said Elle Ullum, Associate Director of Donor Engagement and Communications, who also joined the tour.
“We have had multiple restaurants who told us that we’re the reason they stayed open,” said Tavoularis. The nonprofit also specifically supports Black-owned and minority-owned restaurants.
There is a community kitchen within the Margarita Inn, but it isn’t functional at the moment. Tavoularis said in the future, Connections for the Homeless would like to prepare meals in the on-site kitchen but would first need to do some revamping, and the nonprofit doesn’t want to make that investment until and unless it owns the space.
With a kitchen of its own, Connections for the Homeless could invite volunteers to help prepare meals and offer a workforce training program for Margarita Inn residents, said Tavoularis. Volunteers and community members would also be invited to eat meals with Margarita Inn residents.
For 30 years, Hilda’s Place invited the community to dine with those at the shelter. Community members called the experience “transformational,” Tavoularis said. “There was this really profound connection that would happen when people sit down and break bread together.”
A weekly calendar boasts classes, activities and therapy
In addition to providing meals, Connections for the Homeless offers a list of activities and classes for the residents at the Margarita Inn.
On Mondays, a course called “Healthy Connections” invites participants to discuss characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Residents can take part in art therapy, including drawing, painting, sculpting and mixed media on Wednesdays, and on Fridays, a life skills class teaches essential skills like cooking, housekeeping and shopping.
Other courses include a money-management course designed to help residents build financial security and understand credit, and a health group, consisting of a lesson on a health topic, followed by a question-and-answer session.
The nonprofit also partners with other local organizations, such as Live4Lali, a nonprofit that provides harm-reduction resources and supports those with substance use disorders.
Each resident is also assigned one of two caseworkers, either Jeffrey Leach or Maria Ynot. Each caseworker works with about 30 residents, addressing their individual needs.
One of these needs is housing, and applying for housing often involves a lot of paperwork, explained Leach. Many of those at the Margarita Inn don’t have birth certificates, a Social Security card or identification cards, and caseworkers help provide residents with these necessary documents, said Leach.
Caseworkers also help residents find jobs, qualify for Social Security or disability benefits, and pick the best housing option based on their situations.
Medical and behavioral health care
A healthcare team within the facility provides physical health care, mental health support and individual and group therapy. The team is made up of a registered nurse, a certified nursing assistant and two behavioral health specialists.
The facility’s registered nurse, Alaina Slempkes, runs a clinic at Hilda’s Place where she keeps medication and sees patients, Tavoularis said.
Michell Wedderburn, who works as the certified nursing assistant, said if residents aren’t feeling well, she’ll take their vitals and can provide some over-the-counter medication. She also helps set up doctor’s appointments, dentist appointments or optometry appointments, and in an emergency, will take residents to the emergency room or an immediate care center.
“Our goal is not to be the primary health provider,” Tavoularis said. “Our goal is to help connect people with permanent health homes.”
Building needs little revamping
If Connections for the Homeless acquires the Margarita Inn, the nonprofit would make some small changes to the building to make it more accessible, Tavoularis said.
The hotel’s elevator, built in the 1930s, does not support a wheelchair, and the nonprofit would possibly add a backup elevator to the back of the building, she said.
Some bathrooms could also use some revamping to make the building ADA-compliant, but otherwise the building doesn’t need much work, Tavoularis said.
“It’s an old building, but it’s actually in very good shape,” she said.
From 18 shelter beds to 207
There are three steps for ending homelessness, Tavoularis explained. The first step is to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. Eviction prevention keeps those living on the edge from falling into homelessness.
The second step is providing a safe shelter so that the crisis doesn’t manifest into a bigger, long-term problem.
“You have to have a place to catch people so that [the homelessness] doesn’t continue to destroy their mental health, their income, their opportunity, their job,” Tavoularis said.
The final step is to ensure there is housing that is subsidized or affordable.
Loellbach spoke to the importance of political will in order for communities to provide these resources and support.
Before the pandemic, everyone seemed satisfied with the nonprofit’s resources for the homeless, Loellbach said. Connections for the Homeless provided 18 shelter beds at Hilda’s Place and the rest of the homeless population slept in the street, she said.
When the pandemic began, the community suddenly became concerned about the now potentially sick homeless population, said Loellbach.
“Lo and behold, there was the political will to get it done,” she said. “Suddenly, we went from 18 shelter beds to 207.”
Connections for the Homeless is dedicated to ending homelessness within the community, but in order to do that, the nonprofit must be allowed to do its work, said Tavoularis, who added that the nonprofit’s employees are experts in this work.
“We have experience in this work, and we follow the best practices, and we go to the conferences, and we work with other service providers,” Tavoularis said, adding that Connections for the Homeless is committed to being a good neighbor, including taking care of property and caring for the whole community.