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We all can agree. Homelessness is a national crisis.

Most people who live or work in any large American city bear witness to it, including many residents of Rogers Park who often feel besieged by panhandlers at their local grocery stores and transit stops and are witnessing their beautiful local parks slowly transition into campgrounds for the homeless.

We do not solve our homeless crisis by simply arresting panhandlers or sweeping the homeless out of our parks.

We need to remember, however, that behind every panhandler and tent dweller is a human being who has a story to tell.

That person may be suffering from a mental illness or struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction. Or he or she may be simply down on their luck, having lost a job or experienced a health crisis without insurance coverage or suffered some other profound personal crisis. Obviously, the challenges a person faces increase exponentially when they become homeless and supportive services are almost always needed to stabilize his or her life.

We do not solve our homeless crisis by simply arresting panhandlers or sweeping the homeless out of our parks. We do it by integrating homeless response systems and providers into data-driven processes that are accountable for measurably and equitably ending homelessness. A key component of the emergency response systems are local nonprofit agencies that do the hard work of providing an array of wrap-around services to help the homeless move into homes and, from there, more stable and productive lives.

Nearby Touhy Park is now a homeless encampment, with dozens of homeless individuals pitching permanent tents.

Northside Housing and Supportive Services is one such agency. For nearly 40 years, Northside Housing has operated a men’s homeless shelter in the Uptown neighborhood, providing housing and wrap-around services that have helped homeless men turn their lives around. By all accounts, Northside’s track record is enviable, and they have proven to be a good neighbor.

Northside is now hoping to relocate into the Rogers Park community after the Uptown church they rented from for many years fell into serious disrepair. They propose opening a 72-bed homeless men’s shelter at 7464 N. Clark, about a block south of Howard Street. This use will require a Special Use Permit from the City of Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Even in the most tolerant and compassionate neighborhoods, opening a homeless men’s shelter would be controversial. In the case of Rogers Park, the proposed location created even more controversy as it is situated across the street from a major grocery store with significant panhandling and shoplifting problems, and just two blocks north of a large homeless encampment in Touhy Park.

This is why any agency, even one with a good track record like Northside Housing, must be transparent, specific, and consistent in explaining to the community the services they intend to provide and their anticipated impact on the neighborhood.

Given the fragile state of the community – and in light of the ever-growing homeless encampment in nearby Touhy Park – it seems shortsighted to invite more unscreened and unsupervised homeless people into our neighborhood.

At an initial community meeting on the proposal sponsored by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th Ward), Northside Housing explained that their program serves men who have exhibited a strong desire to clean up their lives and get off the streets. Northside works to find permanent housing for their clients and provide extensive wrap-around services that help facilitate their successful transition back into mainstream life. Per Northside, the average resident stays just over 80 days and only three percent of their clients who successfully transition into permanent housing become homeless again.

In addition, Northside said they will implement security measures for the property, refrain from posting any signage identifying the building as a shelter, and not accept walk-ins. I spoke with 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, who shared that Northside had been a good neighbor in his ward.

Despite misgivings about its proposed location, I support Northside’s proposal.

Admittedly, this proposal has heightened my awareness of the challenges of those facing homelessness. Homelessness remains a national problem affecting the vast majority of our nation’s cities. We all must do our part to reduce the number of people living on the streets, and Northside’s reputation as a tightly run organization with an excellent track record means that its impact on the surrounding community would be minimal.

A tightly supervised homeless shelter … is one thing. A drop-in center for any homeless person who happens by is quite another.

The issue that concerns many of us who live in the community is the possibility that Northside will also operate a drop-in center at the same location. A drop-in center would allow any homeless man to visit the facility at any time to obtain a hot meal, shower, and access to laundry services and a computer. Northside currently operates a drop-in center in the Ravenswood community. Alderwoman Hadden initially appeared to favor Northside including a drop-in center to Rogers Park, despite the challenges this would create for the surrounding community which has suffered increased hardships since the pandemic began.

Given the fragile state of the community surrounding the proposed shelter site – and in light of the ever-growing homeless encampment in nearby Touhy Park – it seems shortsighted to invite more unscreened and unsupervised homeless people from the rest of the city into our neighborhood.

I voiced my personal support for the shelter after the Alderwoman assured me that the drop-in center proposal was “off the table.” My concern grew when she subsequently announced that she had not ruled out asking Northside to provide a drop-in service in the future which, she alleged, she had the power to do without a new Special Use permit.

As a long-time resident committed to seeing our neighborhood continue to be a dynamic diverse family-friendly community, and as someone who supports the shelter proposal, I am greatly concerned about adding this new component.

Nearby Touhy Park is now a homeless encampment, with dozens of homeless individuals pitching permanent tents. A shooting took place in the encampment in early July, and I have learned that park district employees often pick up used syringes and other drug paraphernalia before children arrived at the Touhy Park summer day camp. Public safety concerns caused the Park District to finally move the summer day camp to another nearby park.

The encampment dramatically impedes the ability of community residents to use and enjoy the park, playground, and adjacent tennis courts. In addition to the loss of the summer camp, the Chicago Math and Science Academy, a 6-12 school located across the street from the park, ceased their outdoor sports gym classes in the park last year due to the presence of the homeless encampment. As someone who frequently walks the area, I have observed that the park’s large open field is now rarely used. The soccer leagues that used to bring family-friendly activity to the park on Summer weekends prior to Covid are no longer there – I would imagine the homeless encampment that now crowds out legitimate uses of the park discourages them from returning.

I intend to urge the ZBA at its hearing on the proposal to strike a fair and balanced approach by allowing Northside to operate its transitional shelter … and prohibit the agency from providing drop-in services.

It seems likely that a drop-in center located just two blocks north of Touhy Park will cause the homeless encampment population to grow, drawing more men to the area with the promise of free food and showers, and making the park even less hospital to families and their children.

Most of us share Ald. Hadden’s concern for the homeless. But do their rights supersede the rights of the neighborhood children, their families, dog owners walking their pets and other neighborhood residents who no longer use their public park?

A tightly supervised homeless shelter that provides homes and services to people who have committed to a life off the streets is one thing. A drop-in center for any homeless person who happens by is quite another.

Although the Alderwoman’s opinion on whether or not to include a drop-in center certainly carries some weight, the ZBA retains final decision-making authority on the shelter proposal and any accessory uses that it would allow in the Special Use Permit.

As of press time, Northside Housing had not yet filed their application for a Special Use Permit with the ZBA. I intend to urge the ZBA at its hearing on the proposal to strike a fair and balanced approach by allowing Northside to operate its transitional shelter for those who are committed to getting off the streets, and prohibit the agency from providing drop-in services that will only exacerbate the homeless problem in our wonderful, and in some ways fragile, Rogers Park neighborhood.

Michael Glasser is a long time Rogers Park resident who also serves as President of the Rogers Park Builders Group. The views expressed in this column are his personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.