The quiet, tree-lined residential streets along Fullerton near Lincoln certainly don't look like they're part of a dangerous neighborhood, but that's what some local residents claim they've become. The residents say the source of the problem is the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, and on June 4 four of them filed a suit to shut it down.
The highly regarded, not-for-profit homeless shelter, which has been around a lot longer than many of its loudest critics, is funded and operated by parishioners from four mainstream Lincoln Park churches: Lincoln Park Presbyterian, Saint Paul's United Church of Christ, Church of Our Savior Episcopal, and Saint Clement Catholic Church. "The shelter began as a warming center in 1985," says Reverend Jeffrey Doane, pastor of Lincoln Park Presbyterian. "We've had no serious complaints over the years." He says the shelter's two sites--one in his church, at 600 W. Fullerton, the other a block away in Saint Paul's, at 2335 N. Orchard--have taken in thousands of clients and turned around the lives of hundreds of people. He and other supporters also say that the shelter is well run and safe, that both sites are supervised day and night, that there've been no serious crimes linked to any clients, that unruly clients are asked to leave. The shelter's operators recently received awards from Mayor Daley and from the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce.
Yet according to the lawsuit, in the past few months shelter clients have engaged in "numerous incidents of public drinking and intoxication, fighting, loitering, trespass, voyeurism (peeping), theft, public urination, and aggressive panhandling." The suit also alleges that the shelter has "decreased property values" and caused an "increase in criminal activity," citing three specific incidents: one on March 26, a "trespassing . . . where the trespasser threatened to kill the occupants of the home"; another on April 11, when "a father and his eighteen-month-old daughter were assaulted by an LPCS client"; and a third on December 16, a home invasion and battery suffered by "two elderly individuals."
So far the residents who filed the suit haven't presented any evidence to support these charges, but their lawyer, Reuben Hedlund, says, "I can tell you the allegations are set forth in general terms and are based on what we've been told by residents. There is good and sufficient reason to believe that these crimes were committed by shelter clients who were in the neighborhood because of the shelter. That's something we are prepared to go forward with in affidavits or sworn testimony."
A spokesman for the police department, Robert Cargie, says the police have no evidence linking any of the shelter's clients to the three serious charges above. He says no arrests have been made in any of the cases, and there are no suspects.
The suit has dismayed the shelter's backers. "There is an assumption that if something goes wrong it's the shelter," says Doane. "And once the assumption gets repeated, the integrity of the program can be smeared pretty quickly."
It is true that some shelter clients have been caught peeing in public, panhandling, and sleeping in alleys. But on any given weekend night young, well-off singles can be seen peeing in the same alleys after they stagger out of the bars on Lincoln Avenue, and no one's demanding that the city shut down the places where they get drunk.
Hedlund insists the homeless are causing problems for his clients. "Do you think the city would allow North Michigan Avenue to be populated for one minute by the homeless?" he says. "Well, it's the same thing in this neighborhood--why should they have to tolerate it? Why should the city be less sensitive to them than North Michigan Avenue?"
Hedlund also says the shelter's being run illegally, because its operators don't have the necessary special-use zoning permit. Doane says the shelter's operators didn't know they needed a special-use permit when they opened back in 1985, though they do now. "The technicalities of zoning law are that we do need one," he says, adding that they recently filed an application.
Caught in the middle is the alderman, the 43rd Ward's Vi Daley, a nonideological mainstream Democrat who generally votes however Mayor Daley (no relation) wants her to and rarely has much to say in City Council debates. (She didn't return my calls.) Some of the shelter's backers, particularly Saint Clement's, are powerful institutions in her ward, but she also has supporters among the shelter's opponents, including one of her predecessors as alderman, Billy Singer.
In April Daley convened a gathering at Alcott Elementary School, inviting the shelter's leaders and their critics to make peace. But the meeting backfired, as locals, led by Singer, attacked her and the shelter's operators.
"It was a very ugly and upsetting meeting," says Doane. "Someone said, 'Put it on the west side.' I guess a lot of people think this neighborhood's too good to shelter the homeless."
No matter what she does, Daley will be criticized by someone. She can't pretend she doesn't know the shelter's operating without a permit, but she obviously doesn't want to risk looking heartless by throwing homeless people back onto the street.
"This is a difficult issue for the city, particularly because churches are involved," says Hedlund. "Service for the homeless is on the city's agenda. I think you can understand that no one wants to push the homeless back to Lower Wacker Drive."
City officials now have to decide whether to immediately close the shelter for operating without a proper permit, which a judge might order them to do. Later this summer the Zoning Board of Appeals will have to review the shelter's application for a special-use permit--something neither Alderman Daley nor Mayor Daley has taken a stand on--and decide whether to approve it.
The shelter's supporters are bracing themselves. "We think we have been good neighbors, and we don't want to fight with our neighbors," says Doane. "And we certainly don't want to give up our mission."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.