Days before the full Evanston City Council votes on making the Margarita Inn a permanent shelter operated by local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visited the old boutique hotel and spoke in support of the shelter’s work and its model of non-congregate transitional housing.

The event, which also featured comments from other Evanston and Cook County officials, honored the third anniversary of the Margarita Inn’s new role in town as shelter and homeless service provider under the leadership of Connections.

And, perhaps more importantly, the gathering served the purpose of rallying backers of Connections and the shelter ahead of the key council vote coming up Monday night, May 22.

“This is the right thing to do, and maybe the discussion should end there – putting a roof over people’s heads, giving people a bed to sleep on so they’re not on the street, giving them three meals a day so they’re not going hungry, providing wraparound services to get people back on their feet,” said Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma. “My heart has been warmed by the outpouring of support from folks around Evanston and on this street, that have stood up to say ‘Yes in my backyard.’ I’m proud to live in a community that has that approach.”

From left: Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Jennifer Hill of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County and an American Sign Language interpreter gather outside the Margarita Inn on Thursday, May 18. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Despite the cheers of the crowd gathered outside the inn on Thursday morning in response to Nieuwsma’s speech, Connections and the shelter have met opposition every step of the way toward getting full city approval to keep the building open permanently. Evanston’s Land Use Commission even had to vote on the matter twice after local real estate investor Cameel Halim received a temporary restraining order from a court so he could make public comments to the commission.

Even then, the commissioners split 3-3 over approving Connections’ application for a special use at the Margarita. Plus, earlier this month, a neighboring landlord filed a lawsuit seeking to block the shelter from staying open, claiming the Margarita was driving down property value in the neighborhood.

Nieuwsma’s legacy?

In his remarks on Thursday morning, Nieuwsma recalled one of his constituents asking if he really wanted the Margarita to be his legacy. If that legacy means being remembered for opening a shelter for the unhoused that provides basic human needs and access to new opportunities, “I can live with that,” he said.

“It should not be so hard to do such good work,” Nieuwsma said.

Meanwhile, Preckwinkle and Jennifer Hill, executive director for the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, praised the practice of converting vacant, unused hotels into non-congregate shelters, where people can have their own room and bathroom. Similar to Evanston, Oak Park recently turned the Write Inn, formerly a literary-themed hotel, into an “interim housing” shelter, where residents can get back on their feet and work with case managers to find jobs and permanent housing.

Before COVID-19 hit in March 2020, more than 70% of all shelters in suburban Cook County were borrowed spaces donated nightly by nonprofits and houses of worship, according to numbers tracked by the Alliance, but those places can only offer group housing on an emergency basis. People staying in those locations have to leave during the day, as well.

“It took a pandemic to teach us that this model works,” Hill said. “People in crisis do better in a room that locks, with showers, meals and services readily available to help them move from survival mode to stability. Now, here we are over three years later, and there’s no going back, only forward.”

Looking ahead to Monday’s vote, Connections’ CEO Betty Bogg said she’s anticipating another tense night of public comments and City Council debate on both sides of the aisle, but another difficult meeting is a small price to pay after such a long journey toward making the Margarita example a reality going forward.

“We just have to keep doing whatever the next right thing is, and just don’t give up,” Bogg said. “You have to keep your eye on the long game, but if you get lost in how far away that is, it can be really demoralizing, and there’s always something you can do right now.”

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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. So thankful for people like Mayor Biss and Mr. Nieuwsma who look beyond the description of homeless and see humans in need of housing and services. Hip, hip, hooray for bringing change to Evanston, my family and friends support the Margarita Inn and old and new residents coming out their restrictions looking to lead a better life. Continue to lead with love, selflessness and a heart that hears a cry for inclusion and change.

    1. Ms. Williams, as a former Connections employee who saw the daily doings at the Margarita Inn (I also live within 500 feet of the facility), it breaks my heart that Connections is operating a “low – barrier” homeless facility. IMO about 25% of the Margarita residents have a genuine desire to improve themselves (physically, mentally, materially, and spiritually…) so they can get ahead in life and escape the vicious “homeless cycle” of dependency, enablement, and continued failure. These folks deserve ***all*** the assistance that Evanston can generously give them, and they will appreciate that assistance on their journey to success. The other 75% of residents have no desire to improve, as they are just looking for a nice place to stay so they can “hang out”… and with their behaviors they are dragging down the 25% who are seeking to better their lot – it is *not* a “safe space” for that 25%…

      Managed responsibly, and with the *primary* focus on the safety, well – being, and eventual good outcomes for Margarita guests, this could be a shining “best in class” success that we in Evanston could support and be proud of…

      As it stands, this is a woeful example of what can happen when lots of money is thrown at a project by well – meaning but unprepared and naive people…

      As for this event, I am wondering why none of the neighboring local residents or businesses were present to extol the good works of CFTH… I would have been right there applauding if the Margarita Inn were responsibly and safely operated. Evanston deserves *far* better than what Connections is offering…

      Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th resident and *not* a “NIMBY”

  2. I would have liked to see the crowd.
    Was there even one? I am in this area everyday. I dont know one neighbor or business supporting this, except for those who live far away or those who live in condos with multiple amenities and security.

  3. I’ve lived within 4 blocks of the Margarita Inn for 28 years, currently living 3 blocks away. In every year that I’ve walked down Davis Street, there have been panhandlers in the vicinity of Maple and Church. In 2019, well before the Margarita Inn became a shelter, an unhoused person pitched a tent and lived on the west side of the Post Office grounds. It’s not my experience that panhandling or the unhoused only came to this neighborhood after the Margarita Inn transitioned as a shelter. How did they get to these blocks in Evanston? I suspect via the CTA.

    In all honesty, I’ve never walked this neighborhood and thought “What we really need here is a homeless shelter.” But the reality is that Evanston does need a shelter. It’s far easier to repurpose a hotel as a shelter than to build one, as it’s far easier to work with an existing organization than to stand one up. I’ve given this idea considerable thought, and can’t come up with a better plan.

    We somehow have to better balance what we want in our ward and what’s best for the entire city of Evanston. On the whole, I think Evanston is better off with a shelter in my neighborhood.

  4. I am a taxpayer against turning a viable business into another homeless/transitional option.
    Considering the YWCA has taken how many houses in the last 5 years,( two or more?), off the tax roles…Each of these take away baby steps burdens more tax payers and provides less jobs for an area in a vibrant part of town.
    If the Homestead can be made into a “The Graduate Hotel”, there should be an excellent opportunity for The Margarita Inn to become a profitable addition to the beautiful and vibrant downtown area. Especially with a growing new theater district nearby. I loved the old restaurant and lobby area of the Margarita Inn. It is in fact, a historic Evanston gem.
    This renewal for a business will provide jobs and skill building for those in need of creating a sustainable life and add to a stable, safe neighborhood. Providing with a nice place to stay, maybe more affordable, while promoting Evanston’s cultural offerings.
    Let’s build businesses. Not take house, after house, after business away from the tax base.
    I do not have a clear understanding of what Evanston offers, but do know from casual knowledge Evanston has: new government buildings off Emerson, YWCA, YMCA, Chicago Ave and Lake, and Main street and Maple, Rice, individual homes, etc., serving those in need. We trip over psychologists and higher education. We have many charitable outlets. And, for profit care facilities.
    No need for another, what we need is better leadership, and more businesses providing opportunity for jobs and education! And, Less drugs.
    Refusing to address and curtailing the basic reason folks are so stressed. Poor leadership, addiction, high taxes, and high cost of living.
    For decades, poorly supported parent(s) need help in teaching baby/ tots to children read and do math so they can grow past a third grade level! And, not be lowering standards or discarding gifted programing. This lack of response results in young adult dropouts, and limited choices, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
    Say NO to converting the Margarita Inn to another homeless transitional shelter.
    Be well!

    Cannabis use health issue report

  5. I’m politically impressed- Chicago Democrat T. Preckwinkle visits for photo op…. an imperfect attempt at an equitable photo choice—the photo does not show representation of the other out-of-town people who drive onto Oak Ave to visit their friends residing at MarInn. Statements made about which backyards? – interpret that as invitation to Connections for researching northern-most EV wards to acquire more properties to buy and continue housing additional homeless from all of Cook County etc.
    Fourth-Warder Ceal Hanchar

  6. I’m fully in favor of Margarita Inns new purpose, ONLY if a reasonable set of enforceable guidelines for Connections performance are agreed upon prior to City Council approval.
    If required, find a neutral third party to mediate a performance agreement with neighbors on the adjacent block. The neighbors are Evanston residents who deserve having their very specific concerns addressed prior to moving forward with this very admirable project.

  7. The word “homeless” has been stolen by Connections. We all want to help the homeless. If someone or a family is in crisis, Evanston will help. This is what defines our city. We are a caring city. We will help bridge the gap when someone is in crisis.

    But our city does not want the addicts, drunks, and the lazy who choose to be homeless and purposefully take advantage of our charity. These vagabonds bring crime and blight to Evanston. This cannot be allowed.

    If members of the City Council , our mayor, Betty Bogg, Toni Preckwinkle and Jennifer Hill continue to deny the difference between “people in need” and “people who take” then we will continue to be on very opposite sides.

    The council may approve on Monday but the issue of how our council so willfully ignored the tax paying residents and citizens on and near Oak Avenue will not be forgotten. Jonathan Nieuwsma will not be re-elected. Daniel Biss will not be re-elected.

    My name is Agnes D’Marco and I live on Oak Street near the Margarita.