Lincoln Park agency should be up-front about homeless shelter plans, and the community needs to keep an open mind

The community meeting held in the gymnasium of a local school in Old Town earlier this month drew a sparse crowd.  The focal point of the agenda was a "transit-oriented development" across the street from the Sedgwick "L" stop.  Residents weren't especially concerned.  After all, it makes sense that some one might undertake a "transit-oriented" project across the street from a train station.

When meeting attendees learned more about the proposal, indifference and mild curiosity soon morphed into opposition when Lincoln Park Community Services, an agency serving the homeless, announced that their "transit-oriented development" was really a plan to build a housing complex for the homeless.

The Lincoln Park agency wants to purchase the former Culinablu Living Kitchens, located across the street from the Sedgwick "L" stop, and turn the building into 20 permanent housing units, 48 "temporary rooms" for the homeless, and agency office space.

To some extent, the resistance is understandable.  How does "transit-oriented development" translate to "homeless shelter?"  The only thing transit-oriented about it is its proximity to the Brown Line.

According to DNAinfo Chicago, Mitch Newman, an organizer of Old Town Neighbors Vote, reported that not once during the meeting was Lincoln Park Community Services mentioned.  Neither was the word "shelter."

Members of Old Town Neighbor's Vote have been circulating a petition to try to halt the project.  They want Brian Hopkins, the alderman whose ward extends to Old Town, to know that residents don't want to see any more subsidized or transitional housing there.  Newman insisted that it's not a case of NIMBY (not in my backyard).  Several homeless shelters already serve the area, and residents are concerned that having such a high concentration of those services will have a detrimental impact on the neighborhood.

The area already offers more than 150 beds for the homeless and over 1,000 Section 8 apartments.  Shelter advocates claim that the community's resistance is more about protecting property values than anything else.

Part of the contention has to do with the fact that the property where the new housing is to be built would have to be rezoned as a "transit-oriented development" so it won't have to provide as many parking spaces as a building its size normally would.

While many in the community would probably still be opposed to the housing development even if they had known the whole truth about it from the beginning, resistance is probably even greater now because they feel as though they've been misled.

I'm not sure what criteria have to be fulfilled before something can be considered a transit-oriented development, but referring to a project on those terms does not sound anything like "homeless shelter" or "low-income housing" or "transitional facilities."  It's almost as if the agency and advocates for the plan knew the community wouldn't be in agreement, so they touted the project with a vague description.  Even if it does qualify as "transit-oriented," residents should have been informed of the basics before the community event.

It looks like the Lincoln Park Community Services endeavor will be able to launch in spite of residents' opposition.  Fortunately, the subsidized housing plan has the potential to be far less detrimental to the neighborhood than some may think.  It may not have a negative effect at all.

Although many municipalities have yet to study the effects of supportive housing on neighborhood property values, some research that has been done on the topic suggests that, if they are well-run, such facilities may have a neutral or positive impact on surrounding properties.

One study examined the effects of supportive housing in Philadelphia.  Abandoned properties were rehabbed so homeless people could move in.  In order to remain eligible for the housing, residents had to take steps to address the issues that landed them on the streets in the first place.  For example, they had to seek addiction treatment and look for employment.

In this case, the housing had a positive impact on property values because the neighborhood was already economically-depressed, with large numbers of the  homeless basically camping out on neglected properties before the units were built.

When the shelter opened, neighbors didn't mind living nearby because it was so structured.  Given a choice between living next to an abandoned building inhabited by squatters or living next to well-kept housing that actually got people off the streets, residents chose the latter.

The results are less clear when such initiatives are launched in more affluent neighborhoods.  However, studies of the relationship between various types of rental housing and property values across the state of Delaware indicated that transitional facilities either had no effect or led to a slight improvement in property values.

If the other homeless shelters that already exist in the neighborhood haven't brought down home values, then this one probably won't either.  While some people don't want to see more subsidized housing construction, it's probably easier to establish it in a neighborhood where it's already present than to break ground anew in a neighborhood that has never seen a Section 8 apartment.

Kevin Gillen, one of the authors of the Philadelphia study, concluded that ultimately, it's the design of the housing, how it's managed, and the context of the neighborhood that determine whether property values go up or down or remain about the same.  He also said the research implies that "it's within the power of public officials" to mitigate factors that could have an adverse impact.

I'm going to take it a step further and say it's within the power of public officials, private entities, and the community as a whole.  Public officials need to seriously consider whether this project is good for the neighborhood.  I think the Lincoln Park agency should have to provide aldermen with a very detailed plan for how the apartments will be operated (if that hasn't already been done).

The housing should be planned within a framework that empowers the homeless to break the cycle of poverty that has landed them where they are.  Transient residents should be required to pursue education or training and any other services they need to keep making progress.  If they're able, they need to be actively looking for a job.

The "temporary rooms" should be places where the homeless can stay for several months at a time to try to get back on their feet, or short-term until more permanent shelter can be found.

Community residents should be given the opportunity to contribute, too, by providing donations and giving their time to teach job skills or provide financial coaching, or any other services the homeless might need.  Perhaps neighborhood residents can be part of an executive board or some type of panel so they can give their input on an ongoing basis about how the project can be coordinated so that all parties involved may benefit.

Community residents may even be able to partner with homeless clients in projects that aren't directly connected to the housing complex but can still go miles toward improving relations and supporting the neighborhood.  Perhaps long-term residents and homeless newcomers can maintain a community garden.  Perhaps both groups can work side-by-side in after-school programs and other grass-roots initiatives that foster a sense of common purpose and provide valuable assistance to transient and permanent residents alike.  Homeless people, who are frequently the recipients of help, can be empowered to give back, and longtime residents can begin to see them in a new light.

Viewing the newcomers as neighbors rather than "the homeless," finding ways to help them become self-sufficient, and encouraging them to participate in the community will build bridges and keep the neighborhood on a steady path toward continued growth.  Of course, transparency and open communication are vital, too.


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