The City Council’s Human Services Committee on Monday pushed action until next month on Connections for the Homeless’s request to operate a homeless shelter at the Margarita Inn, as some neighbors maintained that proposed license changes still lack protection.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, whose Fourth Ward includes the Margarita Inn, located at 1566 Oak St., has recommended the committee approve the ordinance, modifying provisions in city code that apply to the “Shelters for the Temporarily Homeless” ordinance.
Modifying that section of the ordinance, Ike Ogbo, the city’s Health & Human Services Director, said in a memo, will update the code and provide current health and safety standards for the well-being of residents and staff at the facility.
Staff’s recommended changes to the ordinance include enacting a license fee, requiring annual license renewal inspections, establishing deadlines to cure violations and adding a penalty – a maximum of $750 per offense.
But during public comment at the Nov. 7 meeting, John Cleave, one of the neighbors who lives close to the facility, told committee members that proposed license revisions still had “some major flaws.”
He noted that Nieuwsma himself said “that this is an unprecedented social experiment, and we have to do this right.’”
“And so part of doing this right,” added Cleave, “is to set the stage where the city can ensure that everything is running in a way that’s beneficial to the city, to the residents, and to the businesses and neighbors in the downtown. And there’s a lot of weakness in the way the provisions were spelled out.”
He named a couple of issues, including allowing alcohol on the premises.
“A number of homeless have substance abuse issues. This is condoning it,” Cleave said. “And it seems to me that it’s anathema to trying to get them in a position of stability.”
He said the changes also fail “to spell out any requirements for the operator to provide mental health and substance abuse services to service the population that is in there.”
In addition, Cleave said, “the reporting requirement in it is basically nonexistent. It’s very vague and it doesn’t spell out things like the percent of Evanston residents. … It doesn’t have things like the success ratio of percent placement and evictions, average length of stay and other data.”
Richard Eddington, who until last month served as the city’s police chief, was also among the speakers raising concerns.
Eddington, an Evanston resident, addressed the committee as a private citizen. He said that he had made a commitment to several individuals that he would offer his perspective once he left the police force.
Concerning the supervision provided by Connections for the Homeless, he said at Monday’s meeting, “They have a very difficult time enforcing rules and order. That’s not in their wheelhouse.
“They’re very good at the charitable work they do. That’s very important,” he said. “But maintaining order in a downtown facility isn’t their strong suit and I think that’s why we’re spending a considerable amount of time on this, and when we compare and contrast that to other locations we seem to have more difficulty.”
He went on to say that the agency’s reliance “on the Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, they’re using it as a shield to prevent them from enforcing any type of code of conduct or standards of conduct for their clientele in the downtown area. I think this is counterproductive of the city of Evanston’s goals.”
The former chief had been on record about his concern. In an early community meeting on the issue in March 2022, the chief, responding to a question, reported that police were seeing a sharp uptick in police calls from the Margarita Inn in two years of occupancy, including ambulance calls and disturbances.
Later during the meeting, Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns, chairing the session, called on Connections for the Homeless Executive Director Betty Bogg for a response.
Bogg told committee members that “I personally walked [Chief] Eddington through the building, as well as having frequent conversations with police officers and police command regarding how we are enforcing rules, not enforcing rules – anything like that. We’re always open to suggestions,” she said. “I’m not aware of any specifics that have been brought to us that we’re not acted on. We have shared the number of people that are discharged for behavioral reasons. So we do enforce our own rules. But if there’s something we’re missing we’re happy to talk about it.”
Susan Calder, a Fourth Ward resident, told committee members she lives about 2½ blocks from the Margarita and frequently walks on Oak Street.
“I would first of all like to congratulate the city and its staff for developing this license ordinance,” she said. “It sets out clear guidance for those living in noncongregate temporary shelter. It gives guidance to the operators – present ones and hopefully our future operators that support our vulnerable population.”
She reported that 10 years ago, a mayor’s task force on homelessness drew up a document called “Heading Home.”
“It was overwhelmingly adopted by the council,” she said, “and two of the items that the council and city were to address was an increase in the number of supportive units and the Margarita is certainly one of those. And also the Margarita is a blueprint for the national standard of housing-first model.”
A housing-first model, she explained, “requires that people should have a stable roof over their heads, a key to their door, and true security.”
“The simple fact is we need the Margarita Inn” as the city’s approach to the problem of homelessness, she said. “It may not be a perfect solution to some. I think we are lucky to have it.”
Acknowledging some of the concerns, Nieuwsma noted that “we’ve said all along we want to take our time and make sure we’re doing this right.”
“We don’t have a template here,” he said. “We are figuring this out, in the absence of looking at another community, that’s exactly what we are doing. We know the kind of operation we need the Margarita to be is successful in other communities,” naming Oak Park. “If they can do it in Oak Park, we can do it here.”
The lack of an alcohol policy “is something that I’ve struggled with,” Nieuwsma said.
“I completely understand the argument for allowing alcohol in the building,” he said. “That argument is, if people are going to be drinking it’s better to have them drinking in the building than on the street. However, if we look at Oak Park as our example of a community in which this is really working without much community consternation, my understanding is they have a no-alcohol-in-the-building policy. I would like that to be considered here.”