What began as a discussion about the panhandling signs being taken down morphed into the larger issues of mental health and homelessness at the Fourth Ward meeting Tuesday night.
The discussion, while difficult at times, also reflected the complicated feelings people have about the symptoms of the core problems under debate.
The 30 or so people at the meeting want to stop what people see as more “aggressive panhandling.” Yet, they were divided on their opinions about what to do, and even the handful of high-level officials there had no new resolution to offer.
Tuesday’s meeting came a little more than two weeks after newly appointed City Manager Luke Stowe ordered the removal of the city’s anti-panhandling signs posted in high-traffic downtown areas.
Stowe told Fourth Ward residents he decided to take down the signs, which included the phrase “Have a heart. Give smart” and encouraged residents to donate to social service organizations instead of giving panhandlers cash, because many of the signs had been vandalized and seemed to be ineffective.
When they were put up in February, they were meant to target what was seen as an “uptick” in harassment reports, which was noted by then-interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski. At the time, she said the signs were “not about general panhandling, but about aggressive panhandling, which is criminal.”
Stowe said Tuesday the city still stands by the messaging behind the signs and the dangers of panhandling.
Still, several people in the audience Tuesday said the problem has not diminished, but increased in severity.
They said they were disappointed about the removal of the signs and had serious concerns about panhandlers either verbally harassing or physically assaulting residents.
“I’ve lived here for over 12 years, and there has never been this level of panhandling,” one resident said.
Evanston interim Police Chief Richard Eddington and Officer Michael Jones were also there. Jones said he believed that more and more people from Chicago and other parts of Illinois are specifically coming to Evanston to panhandle to take advantage of the city’s shelter services and hotels, which began offering rooms here during the early days of the pandemic.
Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) said people should acknowledge the humanity of panhandlers by engaging with them, not ignoring them, and directing them to places of support. You can simply say “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” according to Reid.
Yet, several audience members quickly shot down Reid’s suggestion, saying they had tried it and they still were experiencing aggressive panhandlers and harassment. The underlying message was that walking through their neighborhood has become increasingly uncomfortable as a result.
But, as Jones and Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) pointed out, people have a right to ask for money or food on the street or on any public property, and EPD can only issue a ticket for “aggressive panhandling” under Evanston city law if the person calling in a complaint signs a citation and formally submits their verbal or physical evidence.
Impact of Margarita Inn and Albany Care
The anger and contention Tuesday night as people discussed the problems was not new. It has replayed in several discussions over the past year.
Fourth Ward residents have held a number of contentious debates about the role of the Margarita Inn – an old boutique hotel converted into a homeless shelter during the pandemic by local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless – and Albany Care, the mental health clinic that people say brings more panhandlers into the neighborhood.
At Tuesday’s meeting, residents talked about how the two facilities have created a high concentration of low-income, high-need people in the area.
Still, Nieuwsma reminded people that downtown Evanston is split between three different wards, and panhandling is something that happens in cities across the country and the world. And the problem of homelessness is not unique to Evanston.
At one point, one resident said that Connections for the Homeless has an outsized influence on these conversations about aggressive panhandling and housing insecurity, describing it and organizations like it as an “industry.”
“Connections is in our community doing work that we need them to do, that the chief [of police] needs them to do, that you need them to do,” Nieuwsma said.
“So affording them a voice in this conversation is prudent and fair and wise. Does that mean they’re perfect? I’m not qualified to judge, but I will stand up and defend Connections for the work they do because we need them as a community to do that. The problem is not Connections. The problem is homelessness, and that problem is everywhere.”
In the meantime, Nieuwsma said the city is taking a three-pronged approach toward the Margarita Inn’s status as a homeless shelter, which will include the shelter filing an application for a special use permit, the city setting up a licensing ordinance for the building and the shelter also entering a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with nearby residents based on listening sessions that are continuing to take place.
Anyone interested can drop by the building for a tour or a conversation any time, according to Connections for the Homeless Executive Director Betty Bogg.
Later in the meeting, Jacques Marquis, the community engagement director for Albany Care, also spoke to the crowd. Like Bogg, he said any residents can call him any time to talk through issues that come up or negative encounters they have with someone living at Albany Care.
The facility is currently operating under a restricted license provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which means it cannot accept any new patients for the time being, at least until a hearing with the state agency later this year.
Albany Care’s resident population has now dropped to just under 230, according to Marquis. Among that population, there were previously seven recurrent aggressive panhandlers that Marquis worked with to address their issues, and now, that number is down to two.
“I do run into the panhandlers who are not our residents. I offer them services, I offer them information, I try to get them help also,” Marquis said. “I hear everything in these meetings. I hear everyone in here. … Whether it’s mental illness or not, please remember we’re all human.”