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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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After county votes to fund Margarita Inn shelter, advocates in south suburbs point out resource disparities

Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern
Evanston’s Connections for the Homeless organization will receive $7 million to purchase the Margarita Inn shelter from Cook County.

In September, Cook County commissioners approved $7 million in funding for Evanston’s Connections for the Homeless to purchase the Margarita Inn, which Connections has leased and operated as a shelter for unhoused people since 2021.

Despite unanimous approval, the shelter’s purchase has faced backlash from county commissioners. It is being financed by American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

Chicago’s south suburbs see the region’s highest number of service calls from unhoused residents. But, they by and large go underserved due to a lack of resources, according to Katie Eighan, planning director at the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County.

Now, advocates say they want to see Cook County deliver on commissioners’ concerns that funding for hotel-based shelters and homeless services has overlooked the county’s south suburbs. 

“If you talk to any of the funders at the Cook County bureau of economic development or even private foundations, I think they will admit that more focus needs to be given to the south suburbs,” said Carl Wolf, the executive director of Respond Now, a south suburban nonprofit.

Along with the $7 million loan to Connections, the county board of commissioners also approved a $6.5 million loan for a hotel shelter in west suburban Oak Park. Both facilities use  sites vacated during the pandemic to house people on a 24/7 basis and provide services to help secure permanent housing.

Evanston alone has had three hotel shelters that received operational funding from Cook County, county officials said. That’s the same number of county-funded facilities in existence across the entire south suburbs.

The 46-room Margarita Inn, located in Evanston’s 4th Ward, has long been involved in a debate over the facility’s neighborhood impacts — until City Council approved a special permit in May to continue operations. Since then, Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said the controversy “has started to fade away.”

But, when the county’s finance committee discussed plans on Sept. 20 to purchase the sites, concerns arose again, this time from south suburban representatives.

“We have (homelessness) as a systemic problem all over my district,” said commissioner Stanley Moore, who represents the fourth district, which is along Indiana’s border. “My issue comes when we’re spending this type of money in communities that don’t share the same amount of homeless population that we have.”

Though multiple commissioners voiced concerns about funding in the south suburbs, the finance committee ultimately approved the loans. The full board of commissioners approved the deal the next day.

Many south suburban municipalities also lack significant block grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Eighan said. 

“Cook County itself is an entitlement community, and there’s an additional 12 entitlement communities,” she said. “Nine of those 12 are in the north suburbs. They all are getting their own pots of funding — for example, Evanston.”

Connections Chief Development Officer Nia Tavoularis countered these concerns, saying the county has supported hotel shelter sites there “all along.” She also underscored the Margarita Inn’s commitment to housing some of the county’s most vulnerable unsheltered people.

“Not having to spend money on rent gives us the ability to invest in programming,” Tavoularis said. “It gives us the ability to invest in our staff. It gives us the ability to invest in our agency’s infrastructure and development.”

Delmarie Cobb, a publicist for south suburban commissioner Monica Gordon, said she doesn’t know of specific county plans to boost hotel shelter programs in the south suburbs. 

But, Wolf said he has noticed some recent traction.

“The county has over the past month been working more closely with the agencies involved in making that happen,” he said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @realShunGraves

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