CITY HALL — A Lincoln Park homeless agency faced down critics on its proposed new Old Town outlet Friday as it earned a special-use permit before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.
"We think we're one of the more effective organizations at eradicating homelessness, and we want to serve more people," said Lydia Murray, a board member of Lincoln Park Community Services. She called Old Town "a vibrant, welcoming community" well-suited to an extension of the agency.
Executive Director Dan Hula called the proposed new site at 1521 N. Sedgwick St. an "incredibly valuable location to get to and from work," making it "a huge benefit" to those seeking to find a job and, ultimately, their own homes.
Hula emphasized Lincoln Park Community Services is "not a revolving door" homeless shelter, but an agency that treats its "guests" in three areas — employment, addiction and mental and physical health — to get them back on their feet and out on their own.
Commissioner Sol Flores was receptive to that. "We're misusing words," she said, calling the organization "much more than a shelter."
Hula distinguished between an "emergency shelter," that might house the homeless overnight, and "interim housing," like the Lincoln Park agency, which treats guests as "transitional ... until they're able to move into their own house."
That, however, did not placate about a dozen people who turned out at Friday's hearing at City Hall in opposition. Sedgwick resident Mitch Newman led the way.
"I've heard nothing but good things about LPCS," he said, but added, "It will substantially impact the price of my property.
"In real estate, perception is reality," Newman said. "Even if the shelter is perfectly run, it doesn't matter a lick, because it doesn't alter the perception."
Joseph Ryan, an appraiser for the agency, pooh-poohed those concerns, pointing to how property values had actually increased around the agency's current home in the basement of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church at 600 W. Fullerton Parkway. He also dismissed parking concerns, as the 20 permanent and 48 transitional residents at the proposed new Old Town outlet would not have cars.
"I think this will have little or no impact on parking in the area," Ryan said.
"Nobody here is anti-shelter," said Sedgwick resident Mark Michalak, but he suggested the agency was putting its guests in jeopardy by bringing them to a crime-riddled area.
"The drugs are rampant," he said, adding that he'd recently found "two people fornicating in the alley" behind his home. "I don't know why you'd want to introduce the people in the shelter to that environment."
Ryan countered that there were also shelters in even more crime-ridden areas like Roseland and Austin. Architect Jack Kelley said he'd designed the new five-story addition on the current Culinablu Living Kitchens site to have open windows to "put more eyes on the street."
"We can help," Barry said, insisting the new location would have a beneficial effect on the area. "You need us. We need you."
Board Chairman Blake Sercye persistently asked what evidence there was that community fears would be manifested, but he also asked if the agency would be willing to hire private security to address community concerns.
Hula said staff was trained in security, and attorney Thomas Moore objected.
"We're going to do whatever the board tells us," Moore said, "but I can't imagine why they'd burden them with an extra expense that's not necessary." He called the proposal for added security "unreasonable."
Sercye dismissed complaints that a community meeting on the matter hadn't fully warned local residents what was really being proposed. He said a postcard sent out by the city had said the project was for a "transitional residence," adding, "I think we gave more than adequate notice."
The board voted unanimously at the end of the day to award a special-use permit for the agency at 1521 N. Sedgwick. It still requires a zoning change from the City Council as a transit-oriented development.