Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Cameel Halim’s name.
Neighbors of the Margarita Inn, 1566 Oak Ave., have drafted an alternative “Good Neighbor” agreement that offers a new set of requirements governing Connections for the Homeless’ plans to operate a homeless shelter at the site.
The neighbors issued a statement on April 20 outlining their plan, which they called “a template for Evanston’s first homeless shelter.”
The document contains a number of demands that were not included in the good neighbor agreement that Mayor Daniel Biss and Connections for the Homeless CEO Betty Bogg signed in a festive spirit at LeTour restaurant last February.
Greg Morrow, a spokesman for the group, explained its origins, saying that one of the positives that has resulted from Connections’ use of Margarita is “we’ve really gotten to know our neighbors, including some Margarita residents .”
“We have formed a group dedicated to achieving what Connections wants to do but cannot because of their funding constraints,” he said. “We’ve done research, talked to experts in mental illness, addiction, other shelter operators, outreach workers, people who have been homeless for dozens of different reasons, case managers, policy makers, police, and visited other shelters to really get to the bottom of dynamics at play.
“Our Good Neighbor Agreement is exactly what it should be: a document and program crafted by well-educated parties who care deeply about Evanston as well as the homeless. Our Good Neighbor Agreement ensures that everyone is respected and that everyone wholeheartedly can support Evanston’s shelter with their time, money and enthusiasm.”
Morrow said about a dozen residents were part of the group that helped draft the proposal, which he said includes a number of items not covered by Connections’ agreement, including:
- Limiting the building’s capacity to 30 homeless residents. (Current capacity is 70 people.)
- Requirement that any person accepted for residency at the Margarita Inn have a documented history of living in a house, condo or apartment in Evanston for at least one year and that children enrolled in Evanston schools are given priority .
- Limitation of residents’ stay at Margarita to no longer than 15 months.
- Separation of unaccompanied men from women and children, either by floor or by another partition.
- Installation of cameras on each floor and in common areas.
- Providing an anonymous channel, independent of Connections staff, for residents to report if they are being harassed or otherwise feel threatened.
- Prohibition of possession or use of drugs, alcohol and firearms in or around the Margarita Inn, with immediate suspension of violation and sharing of the information with the police.
- Provision of full-time certified social worker staffing at a ratio of no less than one employee for every 10 residents.
- Requires monthly professional counseling for residents with mental health challenges or substance abuse problems.
- Provide job training workshops for residents who are able to work.
Months in the making
Asked about the proposal, Nia Tavoularis, director of development for Connections, noted the extensive process the parties undertook to reach a good neighbor agreement for the Margarita Inn homeless shelter in February.
“Developing the approved GNA took four months and involved more than 30 neighbors coming together to draft the final document, which was signed by Connections for Homeless CEO Betty Bogg and Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss on February 8, 2023,” she said in a statement.
“The smaller 15-person task force consisted of two single-family home owners, two condo owners, two Margarita Inn residents, one tenant, one landlord, two homeless outreach workers, and three members of downtown Evanston, not all of whom were supporters,” she wrote . “Together, this working group met five times and drafted several versions of the GNA before arriving at a final document.”
‘More like a PR stunt’
Fourth Ward City Councilor Jonathan Nieuwsma also actively participated in the process and development of the GNA, she noted.
Connections’ agreement promised mechanisms for clear communication and strong community relations, including a 24-hour phone number and an email that can be used to contact both Margarita Inn and a Connections Outreach Team.
The agreement will be managed and overseen by an advisory board to include up to 16 members, including one or two from the city’s Human Services Department.
“This agreement is part of an overall oversight structure that includes the new licensing process and an operating agreement with the City of Evanston specific to the Margarita Inn,” Tavoularis said.
“Everyone was welcome to participate in the community drafting of the GNA, but the authors of this alternative version declined to participate. This seems more like a PR stunt than an effort at community engagement,” she wrote.
John Cleave, who lives three doors away from the Margarita Inn, has been involved in the discussion of the issue since March 2022.
In an email and follow-up interview, Cleave said he was invited by Nieuwsma, in whose 4th Ward Margarita is, to work with Connections on the first draft of their good neighbor agreement, “but after much consideration I declined after I concluded that it was done for PR.”
He said the project needs “clear, objective standards around its operations to ensure that the problem of homelessness is addressed in a way that benefits residents, neighbors and the city as a whole, not just relying on Connections to do the right thing .We do this with restaurants, and even hair salons, why not with a high risk operation such as being proposed on Oak Avenue?
“The original draft that Connections wrote clearly stated that it was not a legally enforceable document, and even the current draft does not specify operational requirements other than they listen to neighbors (for example, by establishing a hotline and an advisory committee): there is no provision for them to act in any way beyond listening,” he maintained.
Cleave, who said he provided some support for the neighbors’ agreement, said in his email response that “I would like to see the combination of the GNA and the operating agreement set out objective, clearly defined operational guidelines to be followed, such as residency acceptance criteria, the process of onboarding, how much staff to provide, ground rules for participating in the program, annual reporting requirements, etc. If these standards are put in place, then I (and most of my neighbors, I imagine) would be fully behind the proposed program.”
The neighborhood proposal came in line with the fact that city efforts on Connections for the Homeless request for special subdivision are expected to start up again.
The matter was put on hold in February after a Cook County judge issued a preliminary injunction on behalf of Cameel Halim, the owner of a property across the street from Margarita, who maintained that he had been deprived of his right to to testify at a city Land Use Commission hearing about the impact on his property.
Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that “The City, Council and Mayor Biss intend to continue to disregard Plaintiff’s right to due process and will continue to advance Connection’s special use through the Council without having received evidence from Plaintiff. and without allowing Plaintiff to meaningfully participate in any hearing with respect to that particular use.”
The request for a special use permit to operate a rooming house at 1566 Oak Ave. is now back at the Land Use Commission on April 26, with testimony reopened to hear testimony from the plaintiff as required by the court order.