Evanston-based nonprofit Connections for the Homeless began housing homeless people at the Margarita Inn two years ago while under a pandemic-induced declaration of emergency. Now the organization is pursuing a special use permit necessary to keep operating it as a shelter. Credit: Adina Keeling

After a long delay waiting to get a signature from the property owner, local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless officially filed its application Wednesday afternoon for a special use permit to run a homeless shelter at the Margarita Inn.

Connections started operating the shelter at the boutique hotel on Oak Avenue in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic increased the need for non-congregate homeless shelter housing that could provide safe and isolated rooms for people who needed them.

The facility currently has 41 residential units with a maximum capacity of 63 residents, according to Connections’ website.

But the nonprofit needs the special use permit from the city to keep running the shelter permanently, and submitting the application will now kick off a full review process involving city staff, multiple city committees and the City Council.

At a community meeting to discuss these issues held last Wednesday, Sept. 21, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) told constituents that the application will go before the Design and Project Review Committee, the Land Use Commission and the Planning and Development Committee for approval before a final vote by the full City Council.

About 100 people attend a community meeting about the Margarita Inn at the Unity Church of Evanston. At the podium is Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, who said: “We need somebody to step up and do this work. The homeless population is exploding.” Credit: Richard Cahan

The Land Use Commission will also hold a public meeting to gauge opinions on the application and the shelter before making a formal recommendation to Council, Connections for the Homeless Director of Development Nia Tavoularis said in an email.

“The Margarita is now staffed by seasoned professionals, and by using trauma informed care and the Housing First approach we are moving more people than ever off the streets of Evanston and into stable housing,” Tavoularis said. “Evanston is at the forefront of a national trend in the approach to ending homelessness.”

Connections estimates 66% of the Margarita residents move onto a stable housing situation, 15% are removed for violating shelter living rules and more than 85% of the residents are from Evanston.

Tavoularis told the RoundTable she hopes to receive the permit by the end of 2022, but, if past meetings about the Margarita shelter are any guide, the approval process could face significant opposition from the neighbors.

Over the past year, everything from Fourth Ward meetings to community listening sessions about the shelter proposal have centered around the possible negative impact that the homeless shelter could have on the surrounding community.

For example, some Evanston residents have previously complained about being followed or harassed by Margarita Inn residents and others have expressed concerns about the large number of people smoking or loitering outside the hotel building.

Over the summer, Connections held a dozen meetings to hear feedback about what the facility could do better and residents overwhelmingly responded with fears about declining property values and public safety.

Hoping to quell some of those concerns, Connections has made some basic changes like conducting litter patrols around the building exterior every two hours and hosting tours of the Margarita for any interested neighbors.

Still, one Evanston resident spoke up at last week’s meeting about continuing to feel unheard in the process, and Fourth Ward resident Steven Lewis criticized Connections for using its own board member, Community Health Specialist Elena Navas-Nacher, to conduct research into public opinion about the Margarita shelter.

Application details

In the 189-page application filed Wednesday, Connections argues that it offers the best services for this kind of shelter because of the experience and training of its staff.

Among other things, the application highlights the organization’s trauma-informed care and case management services designed to support unhoused people on their journey from the shelter to a stable and independent living situation.

Connections also explains that its “Housing First” approach follows a philosophy that people cannot address their mental, physical or financial needs until they have a stable place to live and shelter from outdoor elements.

The resources that the Margarita Inn staff provide to residents are designed to help people “regain their sense of dignity and self-worth, and attend to their mental and physical health, which ultimately pushes them toward independence and self-sufficiency,” according to the application.

The kitchen at the Margarita Inn shelter. (Photo by Richard Cahan)

Connections also wrote a list of commitments to “demonstrate its dedication to being a good neighbor and operating the best facility possible,” and those guarantees to the community are:

  • Conducting criminal background checks on all potential participants;
  • Registered sex offenders are not admitted as participants;
  • Providing access for police and other emergency personnel when called by participants or staff, or performing a well-being check;
  • Mandatory reporting of any situation that endangers children to the proper authority (Illinois Department of Children and Family Services);
  • Conducting immediate responses to incidents occurring on the property;
  • Requiring participants to agree to comply with all program rules and Evanston laws;
  • Maintaining a progressive behavioral management program (similar to a three strike program) including, and up to involuntary discharge of participants;
  • Participants will not be allowed to congregate on sidewalk outside of the Margarita Inn;
  • Required orientation for participants;
  • 24-hour staffing – including a minimum of two staff present around the clock;
  • Hiring staff who are trained in maintaining security and safety;
  • Maintaining a manager/supervisor on call 24/7;
  • Maintaining a robust supervisory structure and presence;
  • Requiring participants to engage with housing case managers and proactively pursue a long-term housing plan;
  • Maintaining on-site behavioral/mental and medical healthcare by licensed providers;
  • Maintaining on-site enrichment services such as employment readiness, financial literacy, therapeutic groups, recreational activities, substance use disorder support;
  • Maintaining on-site support for and linkage to treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders;
  • Implementing external litter patrols twice per shift;
  • Preserving building façade and maintaining exterior;
  • Participation in Good Neighbor Agreement and quarterly meetings with police, neighbors, residents (advisory council), and business owners; and
  • Continuing to work with others as part of a community coalition to address homelessness and related issues, including panhandling, mental health and affordable housing.

Additionally, the application says that possession of a weapon, physical violence toward others or illicit activity such as drug dealing or sex work are grounds for immediate dismissal from the Margarita.

Addressing concerns about negative impacts on neighborhood culture or property values, Connections also cited data showing that the 1500 block of Oak Avenue had between 65 and 90 police incidents per year from 2017 to 2020, and 125 incidents between March 2020 and March 2021, the first full year of the Margarita’s operation as a shelter.

“It is important to note that 27 of those 125 calls were for internal issues within the Margarita Inn, had no neighbor involvement, and had no appreciable effect on the surrounding neighborhood or on adjacent property owners,” the application says.

“While there may be a perception that property values may be diminished by the proposed use due to its clientele, there is nothing about the proposal from a land use perspective, i.e. no appreciable increase in traffic, noise, odors, vibration, danger from fire, flood, explosion or hazardous materials, which would have a negative effect on values.”

You can view the full special use permit application filed by Connections on Wednesday below.

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...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Good grief, the public safety statistics alone cited in the article should make the special permit application non-viable.

    Their explanation that the massive rise in police calls to the block is not a big deal is an indictment on the whole enterprise and testament to the negative impact the facility is having on the entire city.

    “Yes, we saw somewhere between a 90% – 39% increase in police calls to the block after we started operating. But 22% of all the calls to the block since we started operating were at our place dealing with internal issues so y’all shouldn’t worry about it.”

    The fact that they have so many “internal issues” at the facility that they have to call the cops is extremely alarming.

    Their operation clearly has an impact on the city as a whole since cops who are dealing with Connections’ “internal issues” are not able to respond to other calls as quickly. The cop who is getting beat up by a Connections resident (which happened a few weeks ago) who was engaged in sexual activity in the facility’s public spaces is a cop who can’t respond to a call somewhere else in town.

    Our public safety force is stretched thin. We don’t need to give them more work by giving Connections a permit.

    Also, what are the costs to the general fund in shifting use from a hotel to a homeless shelter? Evanston has a 7.5% hotel tax in addition to the 1.25% general merchandise tax. Assuming a pre-pandemic occupancy rate of 69% (which was the national average in 2019) and 41 rooms we are talking about the city taking a $130,000 loss from switching uses.

    So we are going to be losing tax revenue and increasing public expenditures for this “special use”.

    It seems like a no-brainer to deny it.