Editor’s note: Below, Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma writes in support of the Margarita Inn. Mayor Daniel Biss also backed the shelter in a Thursday email message to Evanston residents. Both officials issued their statements prior to a Friday court ruling that bars consideration of the special use permit at Monday’s meeting.
With the special use application for the Margarita Inn coming to city council next week, I’d like to share my thoughts on why I support continued use of this facility as a non-congregate transitional shelter.
Homelessness is not a new problem in Evanston – we’ve known for years that the number of people without housing in Evanston far exceeds the number of beds available.
For years we’ve been getting by with an emergency shelter – Hilda’s Place at Lake Street Church – which is overnight only, supplemented by a daytime drop-in center at St. Mark’s Church.
When the Covid pandemic hit almost three years ago, congregate shelters such as Hilda’s Place, which housed multiple people on cots in a large room, were forced to close due to social distancing requirements.
Using federal FEMA funding, hotels around the country were converted almost overnight into non-congregate shelters.
In Evanston, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Holiday Inn as well as the Margarita Inn were used for this purpose. These facilities were managed by Connections for the Homeless, a long-term partner of the city, who were forced to figure out on-the-fly how to manage a type of operation that was new to everyone everywhere.
While the Hilton and the Holiday Inn have returned to business as usual, we continue to use the Margarita Inn to house folks who otherwise may be on the street. After almost three years of experience and some valuable lessons learned along the way, Connections has turned the Margarita Inn into a model facility and would like to make this arrangement permanent.
There’s tremendous support in Evanston for making this happen, including from business owners, community groups, nonprofits and the 40 congregations in Evanston’s Interfaith Action network.
While I proudly count myself among these supporters as an individual, as the council member whose ward includes the Margarita Inn, I have the additional responsibility of ensuring that our good work and best intentions don’t have undesirable side effects. We need to do this, but we need to do it right.
To that end, we’re building a three-legged stool of regulatory and community oversight to ensure first that the needs of Margarita Inn residents are met and also that the impact of the facility on the surrounding neighborhood is minimized.
- The first leg of the stool is a zoning approval. Connections must obtain a Special Use Permit before they can purchase the Margarita Inn building. Last November, the first step in that process occurred when the Land Use Commission reviewed Connections’ application and recommended approval with 17 conditions related to neighborhood impact. The application now comes to the city council for approval.
- The second leg of the stool is a new licensing requirement. At my request we’re constructing a new licensing structure to ensure sufficient oversight of the operations and management of the facility. Since the Special Use process is geared towards property issues, special use conditions are not the best mechanism to establish programmatic and operational requirements. The new license structure will apply to all future shared housing developments and will require council to approve a site-specific operating agreement for each applicant. The operating agreement will codify regulatory requirements for operations and programming: staffing levels, background checks, new resident orientation, etc. With this structure in place, the city will have the authority we need to ensure safe and effective operation of the Margarita Inn well into the future. From the research I’ve done, Evanston is almost unique in licensing non-congregate shelters in this way.
- The third leg of the stool is a Good Neighbor Agreement, a concept that Connections suggested which has been implemented in other communities around the country. While not one of the tools in the city’s regulatory toolbox, the purpose of the Good Neighbor Agreement is to establish mutual expectations and communications channels between the Margarita Inn and the community. The agreement was developed by a grass roots working group of neighborhood stakeholders, including businesses, home owners, condo owners, renters and landlords.
The three-legged stool has been designed and built with full community engagement. I’ve held multiple special neighborhood meetings in addition to ongoing discussion at regular Fourth Ward meetings, office hours and individual meetings.
The Land Use Commission heard public comment, as will the city council when the matter comes to us for consideration. I’ve heard from residents with different perspectives, both supporters and opponents, and I’ve worked to address legitimate concerns through the special use and licensing mechanisms.
Throughout this process, Connections has been a willing and collaborative partner. They’ve held multiple listening sessions, met with anyone who’s asked, conducted tours of the Inn and worked closely with city officials.
Importantly, Connections has done a lot of work to build a trusting and collaborative partnership with the Evanston Police Department and I’m confident that relationship is on the right track.
Bottom line: Evanston needs a facility like the Margarita Inn. We’re a community that prides itself on inclusion, diversity and bold action to address historic and structural problems. We can do this!
Before I close, I want to acknowledge that this is a partial solution to a larger problem. Homelessness is not going away. Giving people a roof over their heads and three meals a day will help prevent a tent city on the lakefront, but there’s still more work to be done – a lot of it – to make downtown Evanston the warm and welcoming place we all want it to be.
City Council member
I give Council Member Nieuwsman credit for caring although I disagree with the approach. I will be even more disturbed if he supports the Billion dollar football field that Northwestern University is pushing. The two issues are related. You can’t go on moralizing about unhoused people on our streets and at the same time support a Billion dollar University project that glaringly ignores these life and death issues in our community. The contradiction is stunning.
Mr. Nieuswma’s statements and deductions on Housing First are factually incorrect. Housing First has been around for 30+ years in various forms. The cities that implemented it the most enthusiastically in the west coast are now the cities with the highest homeless populations and drug problems in our country. It is a deeply flawed method. It is the duty of the City government to research and present what is best for the City, its residents, and business owners. This very basic responsibility has not been done. Unfortunately, in this saga, the most vulnerable people are likely to suffer the most, as our elected officials and government have not done the appropriate and necessary research to determine that this is the best direction for Evanston’s long term health. The goal should always be the long term health and success of the beautiful City of Evanston, not the health and success of one non profit organization that has a very poor and contentious relationship with its neighbors. I am certain that if they were doing their job properly, this project would be supported. When there is smoke, there is fire.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend both neighbor meetings and business meetings.
I don’t recall anyone at the meetings that didn’t work for Connections stating they were in favor of this happening.
The emails I’ve sent have either been answered with a curt “noted” or left unanswered.
Am I wrong in thinking you are a representation of the ward? It feels like you’re only listening to the people who live quite far from the shelter or are in support it. Or you’re pushing for what you want. You represent us.
If we weren’t constantly shamed about being NIMBYs or racicists (look at some of my family photos and call me racist to my face, my reaction will always start with laughter).
I don’t want a low barrier shelter next door. I’ve lived with one now since 2020 and these lessons learned are about how to deflect any neighbor issue with what’s happening there.
I’d be happy with the hotel catering to the children of eths/d65 be next door. I keep reading staggering numbers about the homeless children in our city. Let’s deal with those people first. I’d even donate time and money to that.
The few times I’ve looked for new housing for myself, part of my process after finding a place I like would be showing up and walking the neighborhood at 3am. Any trouble, then that’s not for me. When I moved in 20 years ago, it was very quiet in the neighborhood.
Had I been looking at this neighborhood in 2020-2023, I would have easily noticed that this wouldn’t be a good idea to live here. I’m sad that’s the case now.
P. S. For our mayor, could you have chosen a more expensive restaurant to sign that document that Betty drafted up.
Council member Nieuwsma offers his support and rationale for licensing a permanent, hotel-size, non-congregate homeless facility in downtown Evanston. His findamental arguements are two:
1. The homeless are here to stay, so get used to it.
2. Our approach is new and therefore will work better.
What is missing from his statement are data, goals , objectives, measures, and accountability. While it is decent of Evanston to offer iiself as a refuge for the homeless, he alludes to the additional work that we need to do in this area. The need for a new licensing mechanism suggest more hotel shelters to come. Moreover, the care for those we shelter in terms of security, mental health, drug rehabilitation, food, clothing, and other services not yet determined are assumed to be part of the work and responsibility of Evanstonians.
A few question:
1. What is the larger role of Cook County after the initial funding for this project is over?
2. Given the slow response or no response of the Evanston Police to violence and intimidation on our streets, how will a massive influx of drug addicted and mentally ill persons,ie, the vast majority of the homeless impact our community?
3. We are offered no choice but a homeless hotel or homeless encampments on the beaches of Evanston. Let me suggest that by inviting the former, we will inevitably have the latter as well.
Finally, without a coherent plan to address the causes of homelessness ( drug addiction, mental illness, as well as deep poverty), this approach, while well intended and humane, will end up helping few and turn downtown Evanston into one large homeless encampment.
Rather, let us build social and medical service interventions in partnership with the state of Illinois, federal, and municipal partners to care for our drug addicted and mentally ill citizens. This country has abandoned the mentally ill. We can and should do our part, however, this is too great a task for us to do alone.
I am not a social worket, a drug counselor, or a mental health worker. When confronted by aggresive, intoxicated, unstable, and/or addicted persons what am I to do? By then it will be too late and I am too old to run very fast. All I can do will be to seek life elswhere.
This argument/discussion about the Margarita Inn will continue for quite sometime as we are not describing the same reality. The Margarita Inn is calling itself a homeless shelter. Technically that’s true. But it really is housing many of the same residents as Albany Care and Greenwood Care yet even those two psychiatric facilities have some restrictions. The for profit psychiatric nursing homes I worked in as a licensed clinical social worker had restrictions. Residents couldn’t go out into the neighborhood until they were stable enough and no drugs or alcohol were allowed or they were removed from the facility It is hard to fathom that Evanston has that many citizens who have serious mental health issues and/or addiction problems to fill up Albany Care, Greenwood Care and the Margarita Inn
I was on the GNA drafting committee. I am a regular citizen who just volunteered like 30 others. Since 30 are too many, a zoom session was set up and we were divided based on if we were single family owners, Condo owners, renters, or business owners. Fifteen of the 30 were on the call. As a single family owner, our group then selected 2 to be delegates of the SF owners. I was one. After each meeting I connected w the other SF owners who had volunteered, to get their inputs.
The committee was made up of these delegates plus staff of Connections and two residents of MI.
The majority were neighbors.
The actual signers, if you read other articles, were the city and Connections. But once MI receives the license more individuals are welcome to sign as well as committing to the agreement.
It was a great experience. As a neighbor I learned so much by being involved. And I know what actions I can, and will, take to both communicate concerns as well as support the residents.
@Jean, I wonder how you were chosen to be on the committee over me?
Are you a supporter of Connections? I am not. I signed up, I was never contacted. I have been publicly against a low-barrier shelter at the Margarita Inn.
My wonder of the selections process, was it only supporters invited?
Because if we factor that out and go via distance, why select:
You, who lives 4752′ from “ground zero”
Me, who lives 175′ from “ground zero” and can see “the action” from my living room and bedroom windows?
I’m sorry, but I honestly feel that distance from the Margarita Inn should be a factor in how much your opinion counts (supporter or no).
Did your bedroom light up last night @2am with the flashing lights from EFD visiting the Margarita Inn (*again*), or were you undisturbed due to you needing to walk for 17 minutes just to be able to see the flags flapping in the wind?
So if I don’t support the Margarita Inn as a shelter, I’m a bad person. Gee thanks.
The point EVERYONE seems to be missing on the council is that this shelter is in the heart of downtown. Over the many years, the city has already proven that it can’t or won’t protect our stores and shoppers from the never-ending panhandling by multiple homeless people – mentally ill or drug-influenced – right outside the entrances. Have you been to Bennisons on a Saturday morning in July? They sit on milk crates and ask you for money repeatedly. Some smoke at the same time – weed and tobacco. Have you visited the parked near the post office on a Saturday night? The brown-bagged bottles of booze are passed around like candy. This occurs downtown and south along Chicago Ave. (shopping at the Jewel is the worst). Do you not see this?
How about we set up some enforcement so that the citizens of Evanston are protected before we allow our downtown to be overwhelmed by more homeless?
Sign me up as a very disgruntled Evanston citizen. I am saddened by the direction our city is going. I would enjoy having Evanston’s citizens placed first once in a while.
A few questions for the Alderman:
1. Who signed the Good Neighbor Agreement? Any businesses? Any neighbors?
2. While an Evanston homeless shelter is a fine goal, this is a regional center so why are we importing homeless from Chicago, Glenview, Skokie, and other towns? Can we, as a city afford to support the homeless of Northern Illinois? There are many hundreds, after all. Cannot these towns support their own homeless? Why pretend this is an Evanston solution? It is a Northern Illinois Center.
3. A low-barrier shelter, such as the Margarita, by definition allows drug addicts, seriously mentally ill, and violent criminals – No treatment programs are required for any of these things. Why should we house a Chicago violent offender instead of an Evanston homeless family?
4. The Connections’ policy has been to provide anonymity (and not cooperate with police) to all who stay there, perform no background checks (except sex offenders), and cite the so-called “Homeless Bill of Rights” as the reason. So we don’t know who is residing in our neighborhood and ward. Is that a good policy? This is a long-standing problem with the city legal staff and police so has this been mitigated? If not, why not?
I second the request for answers to Mr. Durkes’ inquiry. After many discussions with neighbors in the 4th Ward and a thorough review of neighborhood blogs, articles and associated commentary in this paper as well as our other local paper, I question whether Connections has “tremendous” local support. Seems more likely, wishful thinking.
“The third leg of the stool is a Good Neighbor Agreement, a concept that Connections suggested which has been implemented in other communities around the country. While not one of the tools in the city’s regulatory toolbox, the purpose of the Good Neighbor Agreement is to establish mutual expectations and communications channels between the Margarita Inn and the community. The agreement was developed by a grass roots working group of neighborhood stakeholders, including businesses, home owners, condo owners, renters and landlords…”
Alderman Nieuwsma, I’m curious to know *exactly* what parties crafted this agreement – I’ve heard various “stories” about the Good Neighbor Agreement, and so I await your clarification…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident and Margarita Inn “neighbor”
“I’ve heard from residents with different perspectives, both supporters and opponents, and I’ve worked to address legitimate concerns through the special use and licensing mechanisms…”
It is ‘interesting”, Alderman Nieuwsma, that despite a number of my calls and emails to your office regarding the Margarita Inn issue, that I *never* received even an acknowledgement from you…
Four other Alderpersons, and other city representatives – including Mayor Biss – *did* thoughtfully respond to my communications. They might have disagreed with my points, but at least they were willing to “give a listen”…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident and Margarita Inn “neighbor”
I had a different experience, Greg. Alderman Nieuwsma discussed the Connections proposal for the Margarita Inn with constituents at virtually every in person office hours meeting he’s held for the last year and a half, as well as at every monthly ward meeting. He’s engaged several constituents who disagreed with him. Perhaps you dislike his decision, but it’s not true that he has not engaged with constituents on this issue. In fact, he has on many occasions.