About 100 people attend a community meeting about the Margarita Inn at the Unitarian Church of Evanston. Credit: Richard Cahan

After months of listening sessions, ward meetings and gradual updates about local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless and its effort to turn the Margarita Inn into a permanent homeless shelter, the now-familiar feelings of tension and disagreement were in the air again at the community meeting Wednesday, Sept. 21.

There were about 100 people representing the city, homeless service organizations, businesses and homeowners, who all came to the Unitarian Church of Evanston to get an update on the permit and be part of the next steps in the required good neighbor agreement.

But the news of the night seemed to be that the controversial special-use permit has not yet been filed with the city. Connections cannot apply for the permit until the current property owner signs off, which has yet to happen, Connections Executive Director Betty Bogg said while she was framing the evening’s agenda.

Once the owners sign off, the nonprofit can finally file its application, which city staff will review for all the relevant documents before it begins to wind its way through a series of city committees for discussions and votes on the permit.

The final vote will come from the full City Council. But the whole process will likely take several months after the application is submitted, according to Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward). Bogg did not say when the permit was likely to be submitted or if there were any problems involved with getting the signature.

Good neighbor groundwork

Nieuwsma suggested that this waiting period meant there was enough time to form a good neighbor agreement committee, meet and develop a draft agreement. The agreement would establish expectations for how the shelter will operate and cooperate with neighbors and it would outline a formal process for dealing with issues.

Since June, Connections has made an organized push to reach out to neighbors, conducting more than a dozen listening sessions with residents to answer questions, producing materials that explain the organization and facilities and asking for feedback about the shelter.

Elena Navas-Nacher, a community health specialist and Connections board member who led the listening series and compiled resident feedback, started her report about the findings. She said primary concerns people had were about community safety, security, property values and general mistrust of Connections.

But before she delivered the report, there was pushback. An audience member, Steven Lewis, spoke up to question Navas-Nacher’s impartiality in reporting on neighbors’ comments and concerns, saying the work was in conflict with her interests as a Connections board member.

Lewis suggested asking a third party, independent of Connections and the neighborhood, to meet with people and develop the good neighbor agreement. Other speakers agreed with Lewis, saying Connections’ vested interest in the outcome of the research made it unwise for it to lead that effort.

Troubling times

But Navas-Nacher, Nieuwsma and others returned the discussion to the desperate need in Evanston for more social services to help the local homeless population. In fact, much of the meeting became a discussion of the problems and instability people face. And while neighbors did stand up to express frustration, the evening never really returned to next steps or establishing a process for the good neighbor agreement.

Those speaking said that between the pandemic, inflation and other societal factors, people are struggling financially and emotionally right now.

“Homelessness does not discriminate. It can happen to anybody,” Navas-Nacher said. “You can have executives overnight become homeless. You can have women and children who are pushed into homelessness because of domestic abuse.”

Late in the meeting, Allie Harned, a social worker for Evanston/Skokie School District 65, gave an impassioned and emotional plea for those in the crowd to open up their homes and their hearts to the nearly 300 District 65 students who she said are homeless.

“They do not have stable, adequate, safe housing,” Harned said. “We have this extreme lack of affordable housing in Evanston, so if there’s anyone in this room who has an apartment for rent or room that you could spare for a family that’s recently arrived from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Colombia, we need places for people to sleep, so let me know.”

Ongoing frustrations

Despite support for the shelter effort and the entire room applauding Harned after raising the issue of child homelessness, residents returned to their frustration about not feeling heard during the listening process with Connections or a lack of sufficient communication about community meetings or the Margarita Inn’s operations.

One next-door neighbor of the Margarita Inn, Michael Joyce, said he had never received any emails, letters or knocks on the door about the shelter or the sessions to give feedback to Connections.

His wife, Christina Jiang, also added that she was followed by a Margarita Inn resident for multiple blocks at one point, and she felt unsafe with so many people with high needs concentrated in the area.

One audience member also said he wanted to see Connections draft its own good neighbor agreement while the neighbors came up with theirs, and then both groups could compare documents and come up with the best possible solution.

Nieuwsma navigated between all the sides, saying: “I don’t want to deny that these issues exist, and I don’t want to deny that there has been an impact. What we’re trying to do here is address a problem and figure out how to do that right, which means doing it in such a way that the side effects are minimized, and that there is a mechanism in place if something does go wrong or if there is an unfortunate incident in the neighborhood.”

For her part, Bogg told the crowd that Connections has instituted things like litter patrols to clean up after Margarita Inn residents who leave cigarette butts outside, for example, and to generally ensure public safety and cleanliness around the inn.

Laura Harris-Ferree, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, said they worked in affordable housing in Seattle, and had encouraged both Connections and the neighborhood to include Margarita Inn residents in conversations about the good neighbor agreement so they feel like they have a voice and a reason to comply with the agreement.

“There is a magnifying glass on residents like this, and we’re often more expectant of them than homeowners or other folks in the neighborhood,” Harris-Ferree said. “Having residents part of the creation process may actually make them want to follow it [the agreement] and have a say in it, rather than just neighbors telling them how to be and how to act.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. As someone who lives three blocks away from The Margarita Inn, I did attend a well publicized listening session with about a dozen other neighbors. All asked questions and many expressed concerns. In my session, the Connections representatives listened and were engaged.
    It’s insulting to those of us who took the time to attend these many sessions and express concerns to have someone arbitrarily claim that “they don’t count” after the fact.

    Connections for the Homeless is not the problem. Homelessness is the problem.
    If Connections disappeared tomorrow, we’d still have homeless in Evanston, perhaps more. We’d still have panhandlers who arrive on the El and claim their place on Davis Street and other places downtown. We’d still have stalking activity. We’d still have criminal activity. For those most concerned about their property values, ignore these problems and watch them grow. Connections is part of the solution. We are the other part. I wish we could work together to create the community we all want.

  2. Laura Harris-Ferree does not seem to understand that Margarita Inn – adjacent Fourth Ward residents should have the *primary* say in any Good Neighbor Agreement. We live, vote, and have equity here, so our safety/security should be the sole focus. Margarita shelter residents are transient (and staying for free), thus they have no vested interest in our neighborhood – they will come and go, but we residents will be affected long – term. In contrast, Lincoln Park Shelter in Chicago has had a robust – and transparent – GNA for 30+ years now. This was crafted by Lincoln Park Shelter leadership, in conjunction with their neighbors, local businesses, city officials, and law enforcement. At no point were shelter guests included in this process – their only “role” was to follow the strictures of the agreement (including a ban on guest alcohol/drug use). That agreement has been meticulously adhered to – thus Lincoln Park Shelter neighbors are supportive (very generous with their time, resources, and money) and any issues are addressed immediately. This is serious business, not some “Kumbaya/Peace Circle” social work exercise. Virtue signaling – especially by those who do not live here – does *not* trump our Fourth Ward safety concerns. And frankly, I’ve not seen much transparency so far from Connections in this whole saga. This dialogue should have been initiated several years ago (and the excuse of “it was the pandemic” is not germane) – now it seems like an “afterthought” …

    Thank you for listening!

    Gregory Morrow (Evanston Fourth Ward resident)