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The NIMBY Chronicles: Wicker Parkers oppose a shelter for homeless women

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By most accounts, Deborah's Place--a shelter for homeless women at 1846 N. Milwaukee--is one of the most innovative and best-run social-service operations in Chicago.

And yet plans to open a similar shelter for 30 women, along with 26 units of single-room-occupancy housing, in an abandoned factory at 2100 W. North Ave. has ignited opposition from residents in Wicker Park.

The shelter's supporters say that local fear and opposition to the project are misplaced. "We will make excellent neighbors," says Pat Crowley, Deborah's executive director. "Our track record speaks for itself."

Still, many residents oppose the zoning change that is required for Deborah's Place to operate out of the building. The opponents, many of whom are avoiding public comment for fear that they will be unfairly caricatured as heartless yuppies, contend that the neighborhood is already overcrowded with SROs, transient hotels, and social-service organizations for the homeless.

"It's very controversial and politically incorrect to oppose a homeless shelter in this day and age when everybody has to say the right thing," says Chris Braun, one of the few local opponents willing to speak publicly on the matter. "But we already have a serious problem with drugs, prostitution, and crime in this neighborhood. I'm not saying that the women of Deborah's Place will add to this, but I don't see how putting the shelter here can help them or the community."

The dispute echoes countless others waged in neighborhoods and suburbs all over the Chicago area. There is hardly a middle-class community anywhere (be it black, white, or Hispanic) where housing for the poor is welcomed. In the case of Wicker Park, a polyglot community of students, struggling artists, old Poles, and working-class Hispanics and blacks, the conflict is shaped by the growing presence of young urban professionals. For the last several years real estate agents have advertised Wicker Park as the next Lincoln Park. Old mansions have been renovated, factories turned into lofts, and tacky town houses plopped into vacant lots. Nowadays smoky corner taverns share the block with coffeehouses, fern bars, and rock clubs.

Along with the diversity, however, come grime, crime, noise, and other headaches.

"I want to be very positive about Wicker Park because I think it's a great neighborhood and I want it to flourish," says Gary Marks, a business owner and longtime resident of the area. "But a lot of the opponents to Deborah's Place are relative newcomers who never got involved in the community before. I can understand their frustration. Things haven't worked out exactly the way they planned. They feel ineffectual and vulnerable and threatened. They didn't realize that living here would require so much hard work. You have to get involved with your community organization, and a lot of them don't want to be activists. They just want to come home at night. You can read into their comments the frustration of someone thinking, 'Damn it, I should have listened to my father and gone on to graduate school and gotten that MBA so I could live in Lincoln Park and I wouldn't have to be living in all this crap.'"

In this case the complaints arise less from Deborah's Place as from other, more troublesome SROs. Residents have long complained about the Victor Hotel, a transient hotel across the street from where Deborah's would be. Down the street, another transient hotel is being converted into SRO housing by Bickerdike Corporation, a not-for-profit development organization. There's also a recycling center nearby, and many units of subsidized housing scattered throughout the community.

"The recycling center attracts 75 to 100 homeless and low-income people a day pushing shopping carts up the alley," says Braun. "This neighborhood is very diverse, and we would like to keep it that way. But if you move a homeless shelter on the corner you lose that diversity; it becomes all low-income. I don't mean to clump Deborah's House with the other hotels; it's well run. But it's a matter of concentration."

Deborah's backers did not expect such opposition. They already operate a local facility for homeless women on North Milwaukee. And their original shelter, at 1404 1/2 N. Sedgwick, was well received by local residents.

Deborah's hopes to convert the first floor of the factory on North Avenue into an overnight shelter and put 26 units of permanent housing on the second and third floors. These plans were presented at an April meeting organized by Alderman Billy Ocasio.

"We used that meeting as a chance to introduce ourselves to our neighbors," says Crowley. "We invited employees and board members to come so residents could see us and understand that we intend to be good neighbors and a part of their community."

At the meeting, Crowley described how Deborah's is more than just a place for homeless women to spend the night. For example, it also offers programs in creative writing and art. "I explained our philosophy," she says. "We do more than operate an overnight shelter. We also have a live-in facility at another site, and supportive services for women who have since moved out on their own so they don't break down with their first crisis. Our whole purpose is to develop trust so we can help the women develop self-esteem."

The meeting, however, had the opposite effect of gaining resident support for Deborah's Place. In a way, the group's backers were their own worst enemies. When they cheered supporting comments and murmured disapprovingly at opposing ones, some residents accused Crowley of packing the hall; others complained that her supporters were intimidating.

"I didn't start out as an opponent," says Braun. "I talked to Pat Crowley and looked at their program and they seemed like responsible, dependable people. But the more I thought about it the more objections I have, most having to do with the concentration of low-income residents. If they had taken a place east of Damen it wouldn't be a problem. But we feel the rest of the city should share the burden of the low-income."

Braun says he had to struggle with his conscience before publicly opposing the plan. "It wasn't easy coming out against this," he says. "Pat is a really nice woman. Saying no to her is like saying no to Mother Theresa. But I don't think it will help the women of Deborah's Place to be here. Pat says that homeless women often want to look as inconspicuous and poor as possible so that people will stay away from them and they are not preyed upon. I understand that. So why put them across the street from pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers? You are putting them next to the very people that are preying upon them."

Petitions calling on Ocasio to oppose the zoning request have circulated the neighborhood. (Ocasio has not publicly stated his position on the zoning change and could not be reached for comment.) The City Council's zoning committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter in June.

At a recent meeting of the Old Wicker Park Committee, Marks and others pleaded on behalf of Deborah's Place. Nevertheless, members voted 24 to 9 against the zoning request. And in May at least two residents sent copies of a form letter to a foundation that helps fund Deborah's Place.

"At the first public meeting on this issue [Crowley] expressed her concern for the neighborhood's position," the letter read. "Now that the magnitude of the neighborhood's opposition has become apparent, she chooses to ignore our objections. As a contributor to Deborah's Place, you must be made aware of the poor decision its board has made on the relocation of the homeless shelter. I urge you to question [Crowley] on this issue and to express your desire for a more thoroughly evaluated location."

Crowley and her supporters say the opponents are unfairly blaming Deborah's Place for the problems caused by other SROs. "If the Victor Hotel is a problem, let's deal with the Victor Hotel," says Marks. "If there are drug deals in the neighborhood, let's tell the police commander and get him working on it. But let's not lump Deborah's Place with those other problems. I think Deborah's Place can be a benefit to Wicker Park. By all means, let's not say no to Deborah's Place and feel we have done something positive for the community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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