Following months of listening sessions, Connections for the Homeless and 4th Ward Alderperson Jonathan Nieuwsma are looking to begin action on the Good Neighbor Agreement between the nonprofit and residents living near the Margarita Inn.
The agreement is planned to help define the expectations and develop a form of communications between Connections for the Homeless and nearby residents.
Nieuwsma proposed creating a committee made up of one or two representatives from several impacted groups such as landlords/property owners, area businesses, renters, homeowners, Connections for the Homeless and the Margarita Inn.
“My role here is not going to be, as a City Councilmember, to be a party to the Good Neighbor Agreement,” he said. “We feel that it’s best that this agreement remains between the community and Connections.”
This is an unprecedented step for Evanston that Nieuwsma said is not required by city code. The idea was suggested by Connections and has been used in other cities on the West Coast said Nia Tavoularis, Connections Director of Development and Communications.
Housing Forward, a similar group to Connections that operates in the western suburbs, runs a hotel program out of the Wright Inn in Oak Park. Tavoularis said that city representatives toured the facility to get a feel for what the Margarita Inn could be.
The primary difference between the two projects, she said, is that Oak Park has a coalition to end homelessness in the village. Evanston is currently working on beginning its own homelessness coalition but it is, according to Tavoularis, in its infancy.
Nieuwsma asked that anyone interested in being part of the committee reach out to him by Sept. 28 or sign up on the Connections website with hopes that a committee can be established by Oct. 5. A prospective timeline targets a Nov. 13 completion date for the agreement, prior to the Thanksgiving holiday and City Council hearing the case for an updated special use application for the project.
The hotel has been used as a homeless shelter since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic after Gov. Pritzker announced a shelter in place order. Since then, Connections for the Homeless has been attempting to purchase the hotel from the owner, who reportedly owes over $400,000 in back taxes. In the meantime, the nonprofit has been renting rooms at a cost of about $1.4 million annually.
Results of community feedback were presented by a member of Connections Board of Directors, Dr. Elena Navas-Nacher, during the Sept. 21 listening session.
Residents have expressed concerns about issues such as safety, property values, the proposed “magnet effect” of the shelter and how it will be funded if approved by the zoning board and City Council.
Connections hopes to stem some of these worries by putting in place a Good Neighbor Agreement with help from residents. To date, 18 listening sessions have been held both virtually and in person to gather feedback on the project with five canceled due to low attendance.
“I don’t want to deny that these issues exist. I don’t want to deny that there has been an impact,” said Nieuwsma. “What we’re trying to do here is address a problem and figure out how to do that right … that there is a mechanism in place if something does go wrong or if there is an unfortunate incident in the neighborhood.”
Plans for the shelter are not set in stone as a new special use permit must be submitted to the city. The process is being held up because, according to Connections Executive Director Betty Boggs, the hotel’s owner has yet to sign the application.
Licensing for the shelter — which would outline operating, staffing, inspection and other requirements — is also in progress and being discussed by the city’s Human Services Committee.
“The work they are doing at that facility is a need we desperately have as a community. We need somebody to step up and do this work. The homeless population is exploding. You’ve seen that on the street,” said Nieuwsma.
“Unfortunately, we are biased. There’s nobody who doesn’t have bias about certain types of people or conditions that people may be living in,” said Navas-Nacher. “It is important to realize that homelessness does not discriminate.”
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September 22, 2022 at 06:13PM