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Evanston leaders, residents and organizations discuss Margarita Inn’s neighbor agreement

About 100 people attend a community meeting about the Margarita Inn at the Unity Church of Evanston. Credit: Richard Cahan

After months of listening sessions, ward meetings and gradual updates about local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless and its effort to turn the Margarita Inn into a permanent homeless shelter, the now-familiar feelings of tension and disagreement were in the air again at the community meeting Wednesday, Sept. 21.

There were about 100 people representing the city, homeless service organizations, businesses and homeowners, who all came to the Unitarian Church of Evanston to get an update on the permit and be part of the next steps in the required good neighbor agreement.

But the news of the night seemed to be that the controversial special use permit has not yet been filed with the city. Connections cannot apply for the permit until the current property owner signs off, which has yet to happen, Executive Director Betty Bogg said while she was framing the evening’s agenda.

Once the owners sign off, the nonprofit can finally file its application, which city staff will review for all the relevant documents before it begins to wind its way through a series of city committees for discussions and votes on the permit.

The final vote will come from the full City Council. But the whole process will likely take several months after the application is submitted, according to Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward). Bogg neither said when the permit was likely to be submitted, nor if there were any problems involved with getting the signature.

Good neighbor groundwork

Nieuwsma suggested that this waiting period meant there was enough time to form a good neighbor agreement committee, meet and develop a draft agreement. The agreement establishes expectations for how the shelter will operate and cooperate with neighbors and it outlines a formal process for dealing with issues.

Since June, Connections has made an organized push to reach out to neighbors, conducting more than a dozen listening sessions with residents to answer questions, producing materials explaining the organization and facilities and asking for feedback about the shelter.

Elena Navas-Nacher, a community health specialist and Connections board member who led the listening series and compiled resident feedback, started her report about the findings. She said primary concerns people had were about community safety, security, property values ​​and general mistrust of connections.

But before she delivered the report, there was pushback. An audience member, Steven Lewis, spoke up to question Navas-Nacher impartiality in reporting on neighbors comments and concern, saying the work was in conflict with her interests as a Connections’ board.

Lewis suggested asking a third party, independent of connections and the neighborhood, to meet with people and develop the good neighbor agreement. Other speakers agreed with Lewis, saying Connections vested interest in the outcome of the research made it unwise for them to lead that effort.

The trouble times

But Navas-Nacher, Nieuwsma and others returned the discussion to the desperate need in Evanston for more social services to help the local homeless population. In fact, much of the meeting did become a discussion of the problems and instability people face. And while neighbors did stand up to express frustration, the evening never really returned to next steps or establishing a process for the good neighbor agreement.

Those speaking, said between the pandemic, inflation and other societal factors, people are struggling financially and emotionally right now.

“Homelessness does not discriminate. It can happen to anybody,” Navas-Nacher said. “You can have executives become homeless overnight. You can have women and children who are pushed into homelessness because of domestic abuse.”

Late in the meeting, Allie Harned, a social worker for Evanston/Skokie School District 65, gave an impassioned and emotional plea for those in the crowd to open up their homes and their hearts to the nearly 300 District 65 students who are actively homeless, she said.

“They do not have stable, adequate, safe housing,” Harned said. “We have this extreme lack of affordable housing in Evanston, so if there’s anyone in this room who has an apartment for rent, a room that you could spare or family recently arrived from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Colombia, we need places for people to sleep, so let me know.”

The ongoing frustrations

Despite support for the shelter effort and the entire room applauding for Harned after raising the issue of child homelessness, residents returned to their frustration about not feeling heard during the listening process with connections or a lack of sufficient communication about community meetings or the Margarita Inn’s operations .

One next-door neighbor of the Margarita Inn, Michael Joyce, said he had never gotten any emails, letters or knocks on the door about the shelter or the sessions to give feedback to Connections.

His wife, Christina Jiang, also added that she was followed by a resident at the Margarita Inn for multiple blocks at one point, and she felt unsafe with so many people with high needs concentrated in the area.

One audience member also said he wanted to see Connections draft his own good neighbor agreement while the neighbors came up with theirs, and then both groups could compare documents and come up with the best possible solution.

Nieuwsma navigated between all the sides, saying: “I don’t want to deny that these issues exist, and I don’t want to deny that there has been an impact. What we’re trying to do here is address a problem and figure out how to do that right, which means doing it in such a way that the side effects are minimized, and that there is a mechanism in place if something does go wrong or if there is an unfortunate incident in the neighborhood.”

For her part, Bogg told the crowd that Connections has instituted things like litter patrols to clean up after Margarita Inn residents who leave cigarette butts outside, for example, and to generally ensure public safety and cleanliness around the inn.

Laura Harris-Ferree, the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, said they worked in affordable housing in Seattle, and had encouraged both Connections and the neighborhood to include Margarita Inn residents in conversations about the good neighbor agreement so they feel like they have a voice and a reason to comply with the agreement.

“There is a magnifying glass on residents like this, and we’re often more expectant of them than homeowners or other folks in the neighborhood,” Harris-Ferree said. “Having residents part of the creation process may actually make them want to follow it [the agreement] and have a say in it, rather than just neighbors telling them how to be and how to act.”

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