EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the City Council second floor chambers are expected to be packed as the Land Use Commission holds a public hearing at 7 p.m.

The discussion will be about whether the nonprofit Connections for the Homeless organization should be granted a special use permit to continue permanently running the Margarita Inn as a shelter for people who are homeless.

Evanston-based nonprofit Connections for the Homeless began housing homeless people at the Margarita Inn 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

This is not the first public meeting on Margarita Inn and it won’t be the last. Once the city’s various committees have weighed in, the issue will go before the City Council for a decision. That is expected in January or February of 2023.

The former boutique hotel at 1566 Oak Ave. in the Fourth Ward became an emergency shelter in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The facility, with a maximum capacity for 63 residents, is controversial as it is a “housing first” model. This means before addressing any other issues in a person’s life, including sobriety, the priority must be to get the person off the streets and into a stable situation with security and a key in hand. After that, the person can begin to deal with the complexity of other issues that lead to their situation.

Does it work? Photographer Richard Cahan spent time with four people who either lived at the Margarita Inn and moved on or are still living there. The RoundTable offers their words and stories into the discussion.

Joshua Krawczyk, 42

Joshua Krawczyk: “[The Margarita] gave someone like me the opportunity to feel like I had a home before I had home.” Credit: Richard Cahan

“The year and a half that I spent here at the Margarita [Inn] I wouldn’t trade for anything else. The staff went above and beyond what they had to work with to help everyone out individually as best they could. I mean three meals a day and a room, a shower, access to a therapist once a week, access to job resources is great.”

Krawczyk said he was living on the street at the start of the pandemic. Connections for the Homeless housed him in several downtown Evanston hotels before he was placed at the Margarita Inn. And it was the stability that made a difference.

“It’s almost impossible if you’re bouncing from couch to couch or if you’re living on the trains like a lot of the homeless do to fill out a job resume and to be somewhere on time, to be in the soup line at this time and then to make it to this place to get into a shelter by this time. Then you’re kicked out of the shelter at six in the morning.

“The Margarita changed all of that. It gave someone like me the opportunity to feel like I had a home before I had home. I felt like I was able to come and go as I please totally within reason. Now I can actually put all of that effort and attention into schooling or a job or whatever other endeavors that you’re trying to put into to better your life.

Krawczyk is a single father with a son, turning 17 soon. “His mother left when he was 6-months-old. And I’ve had him the whole time. … He is special needs. He has a lot of trouble, and he has a lot of issues.”

“I came back to Chicago because I thought I had a better job opportunity here. But that didn’t pan out. … I ended up taking jobs through Craigslist. That wasn’t making ends meet. Now I’m couch surfing and basically not knowing where I’m going to sleep at night.” 

“My brother had already been on the streets prior to that. And he was telling me about how Connections works and how all the different churches in the area offer lunches and dinners and how to survive.

“The reason I’m in Evanston is I am an ex-addict. I go to PEER Services, which is a methadone program on Davis here. I’ve always spent a lot of time in Evanston. I just love the neighborhood. I love the town. When we came back, Evanston was just a natural fit.

“[Recently] I got housing right here in Evanston. My son and I have an apartment over on Seward. My son is at North Shore Academy in Highland Park. I get a lot of support through Catholic Charities. It’s never enough support, though. I really need tons of support.

“But none of this would have been possible without Connections. I wouldn’t have the ability to help anyone let alone myself if it wasn’t for Connections and the Margarita Hotel. And to even think that this place wouldn’t be here to help other people like me who want the help would be a shame. You know, this place does way more good for the people who need it than the few bad apples that may come or go. I just I see this place as a beacon of hope and a definite shining light on the community.”

Sharika, 38

Sharika: “And honestly, the thing is you’re not just in here to sit. They actually find you stability.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Sharika, who asked that her last name not be used, was born and raised in Evanston. She was living with her daughter and roommates in the western suburbs when she became homeless. She has lived in the Margarita Inn with her 16-year-old daughter for about six months. Shakira is looking for housing through the government’s rapid-re-housing program.

“I was really grateful for them to take me and my daughter in here because there’s not many [children]. This place is great. It takes people off the streets. They house you. And honestly, the thing is you’re not just in here to sit. They actually find you stability. You move to the next level. They help you with finding jobs. It’s all about what you want to do. I don’t know where I’d be without this place. Me and my daughter because we were really in the streets bouncing from place to place. I got the call from them to come in. And at first, I didn’t know. I’m like, ‘Oh, but it’s really comfortable. It’s nice.’ You have your own space, your own room, so it’s better than being out there. They provide you with meals. A lot. Housekeeping. All types of stuff.”

Life for Sharika and her daughter, she said, feels normal. “I like it because you can kind of be sheltered here. Safety is okay. It’s what you make it, but, really, you’re safe in here. I don’t know why this place has a stigma of craziness because it’s not. People mind their own. They go do what they are doing. Safety, speaking from my daughter’s point too, we have been okay. There’s no harm. We don’t feel like there’s anything to be worried about.

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

“Right now I’m looking for a job and getting her off to school. The biggest thing now has been trying to find an apartment because it’s been a month now since I had the voucher. So that’s my every day. I was matched up with rapid housing. They pay the rent for 12 months. They pay the security deposit. They figure in 12 months you should be established. And, you know, I’m willing and able so I should be established. I just need a little help right now. So I can get myself back up.

“It’s pretty much up to me to go find my own place because I’m not a lazy person. … I should be able to get back on my feet, get it going. But then, you also want to find something in your budget because after the 12 months you want to make sure you can afford it. 

“They [Connections] say we’ll try to get you out of here within 90 days. And I mean, they stuck to it and more so because I have my daughter in here. But I see people come and go. They really help people get housing in here.”

She said that she lost her job during the pandemic. “The rent was sky high. But it was two of us. And I had a job. I hate to blame the pandemic, but it’s really real. I was working at the hospital at Loyola in Maywood and oh my God COVID-19 was through the roof.

“A lot of us just had the experience of getting exposed to it at that time. And we walked off, like a lot of us. We had a choice. We had the choice to run with unemployment. And that’s what I did because I was doing housekeeping at that time. And a lot of us were getting sick. And then I had to come home to kids because my girlfriend had kids at the time, too. She had two little ones.

“So yeah, I just wish I wouldn’t have done that now. You know but I did. I took the unemployment and ran. But you never know that it won’t last forever. So I got into this situation that my unemployment ran out. My girlfriend left. She moved and she left me in this place. That was like $2,100 a month. I couldn’t afford that. We started bouncing, me and my daughter, started bouncing place to place to place. I found my way back up here because this is where I’m from.

“I won’t say I have the best family support because they’re all going through stuff. But I was able to hop around. Let’s just say that. And that’s when I knew it was just time to try to go seek help. I was told about this place. I heard about it, you know, but I never thought I would have to live in it. … I’m really grateful. Really grateful.”

Dwight Jones, 53

Dwight Jones: “Everyone needs some help. You know, I mean, that’s the bottom line.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Jones was born and raised in Evanston, but lost his job as a truck driver and was evicted from his family’s home after a dispute.

In about 2018, he started living at Hilda’s Place, a homeless shelter at the Lake Street Church, but he was forced out when that facility closed at the start of the pandemic because it was too small to allow safe social distancing. 

“The Margarita has been very helpful. With the pandemic, everything fell in place because there were so many programs you could actually select and choose to be housed.

“The first few weeks I was out in the street [in about 2018] and through my whole time being homeless I only slept outside maybe a week or so. My cousin used to work at the YMCA. There was a program, a 21-day hotel stay, so I was able to get a room there. It was maybe my nineteenth day when a room became available at Hilda’s. 

“[After Hilda’s closed during the pandemic] I moved into the Hilton Garden Inn, which was perfect. That was sweet because that’s the newest hotel and it had the biggest TVs ever. And the thing about the hotel system, they wash your clothes, change your sheets every day. That was the best.”

He talked about life at the Margarita. “Oh, [it was] sweet again. There’s people here with issues, but mainly you stick to yourself. Basically, no trouble. The rules are necessary. You need rules everywhere you go in life. My life is beautiful right now. Beautiful, even though I’m not working. I’m being provided for.”

The room previously used as a hotel lobby has not changed significantly since Connections for the Homeless began operating a shelter at the Margarita Inn. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Since living at the Margarita for several months, Jones has been moved into an Evanston apartment.

He has a disability and is seeking financial support. “They keep denying me. And they just denied the appeal. So we appealed the appeal. And that was denied. So basically I’m going through an attorney right now. I’m going through the process. I can’t walk. I’m still trying to figure that out. It started years ago, but it just got worse these last few years.”

The Margarita: “It means the world to me. It gave me a place to live, food to eat. And not only that, they wash your clothes.”

To people who think Jones is getting too much aid, he says: “It’s really how you look at it to be honest with you. I don’t have a homeless mentality so I’m not taking this for granted. I appreciate everything. So it means much to me. For one, I’m not used to being on the street. Beating that is a plus—not having to stay on the street.

“Everyone needs some help. You know, I mean, that’s the bottom line. That’s all I could say really. Because there’s a lot of hatred in the world. So I can’t persuade anyone to keep something open if they don’t want to.”

Clarence Davis, 32

Davis grew up as a ward of the state, attended Mather High School and was jailed before becoming homeless. He has a 6-year-old son who lives in Evanston with the son’s aunt. Davis lives at the Margarita Inn.

A room for one resident at the Margarita Inn shelter. It also includes a full bathroom. Credit: Richard Cahan

“Right now it’s given me a time to basically get my life together. Because I’ve come from a bad situation. And it really did give me a chance to get my life on track because I was homeless for seven years. I was out there basically trying to survive day to day. And it’s basically just given me an opportunity to get on the right track.

“I was in DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] growing up because my mother was on drugs and stuff like that. I ended up being incarcerated for three years. And when I got out, I stayed with a relative. But me growing up in DCFS, I was not really close to my family. So I ended up leaving that situation because I wasn’t really comfortable. And they weren’t really helping me. It wasn’t really a family. We were strangers.  So I ended up homeless.”

A small yard behind the Margarita Inn gives residents a private place to smoke. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

“The aunt of my child. She was born and raised in Evanston. She was telling me about Connections for the Homeless and how they help out people. She volunteers. She helps with the pantry.

“It kept me out of trouble. I’ve been able to work on my credit and seek better employment and basically just work on myself in general. Because me being out in the streets, I developed like a lot of anxiety and depression and coping with society.

“So I’ve been able to talk to therapists and get my mind right. I’ve been here 10 months now. For me it’s like a place to basically just relax and get my mind right. And basically to focus on myself and stay away from negative people. Because with me being homeless, I was around a lot of bad people and negative people. And a lot of habits and hobbies and stuff we used to do wasn’t really productive. So it is really just keeps me out of trouble.

“I used to go out and walk along the lake and stuff like that. It helps me clear my mind and helps me concentrate and focus, seeking employment and trying to find housing. That’s what I was just doing on the phone.

Bell carts line a hallway in the bottom floor of the Margarita Inn. Credit: Adina Keeling

“I just got approved for an apartment. It’s in the Old Orchard Apartments across the street from the Old Orchard mall. I’m ready to be independent. I’ve never had my own apartment. I’ve never had my name on a lease or anything like that. So this is basically me getting a do over. I feel like in life I get to start off like the right way.”

“I’m able to become a productive citizen. I’ve been trying to get into security. I took the classes for it already.

“[This place] it gives people a chance at life. It gets people off the streets. It allows people who are going through different mental illnesses programs that they can assist you with that.

And it’s a safe haven away from outside. Because being homeless you deal with a lot of stuff outside being out there 24/7. So I guess this actually gives people a place to get away from that.

“Everything’s pretty much on me. It’s my story. So I gotta make sure I write it correctly. I just feel like there should be more facilities like this throughout the city because homelessness is a really big problem.”

Richard Cahan

Richard Cahan takes photos for the Evanston RoundTable. He also is publisher of CityFiles Press, a small but mighty media company that believes in the power of words and pictures. You can reach him at...

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  1. This article is so amazing. Evanston residents must read this. Please keep the Margarita Hotel going. I live four blocks south on Oak street in Evanston, and I am so glad that there is a non-profit organization available to support our brothers and sisters to be sheltered and safe while they get their feet back on the ground and move toward a better living; new job and family housing. If you read this, please note that this can be any of us who fall into hard times 🙏🙏🙏

  2. Thank you for sharing these incredible stories…so glad to be living in a community with organizations – like Connections for the Homeless and Interfaith Action of Evanston – that truly see and honor each individual person and strive to provide the support they need to get back on their feet. I support Connections Margarita Inn purchase, and joined over 200 Evanston residents at the Plan Commission Meeting last night who filled the council chamber, anti-chamber, and 3 over-flow rooms to show support. Supporters outnumbered opponents 10 to 1, and many who spoke positively are neighbors on same the block or in the 4th ward.

  3. How about a deep dive into the scores of police reports that Connections for the Homeless says have been generated by disputes at the facility?

    Or a follow-up about the guy who was arrested at the facility for punching a cop after management caught him engaging in inappropriate sexual activity in front of kids who live at the facility?

  4. These are lovely and inspirational stories. However, they fail to address the issues which prompt neighbors to oppose the Margarita Inn as a homeless shelter: the disproportionate number of times police are called to the Inn, according to former Police Captain Richard Eddington; public urination; neighbors’ apprehension at the prospect of being confronted by a resident.

    All of the stories in this article could equally occur in a suitably-situated homeless shelter, which Margarita Inn is not.

  5. This is an absolutely GREAT story. Thank you so much for sharing these human beings with the rest of us. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for the bounty in my own life, and it is so easy to forget that many, many of our brothers and sisters do not all have the same advantages. Bless the folks who work so hard to help those in need. C’mon, City of Evanston. Let’s live up to our potential and give the Margarita Inn a chance.

  6. I am very touched by these stories and pleased that Evanston has this housing and supportive program for those in need who are willing to use this support to improve their situations (s.)