Resident Gene Pierson addresses The Night Ministry leaders at a community meeting in Bucktown. The crowd included a mix of residents who spoke out in support and in opposition of a plan to relocate The Crib, an overnight youth homeless shelter, to the neighborhood. Credit: Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago

BUCKTOWN — At the end of this week, the Zoning Board of Appeals will decide the fate of The Crib — an LGBTQ-friendly overnight youth shelter that divided residents when The Night Ministry announced plans to move the shelter from Lakeview to Bucktown.

The board will review and vote on The Night Ministry’s application for a special use permit on Friday during its monthly meeting, which starts at 9:00 a.m.

The meeting will take place inside City Council Chambers, which is on the second floor of City Hall, at 121 N. LaSalle Street.

It’s tough to know exactly when The Night Ministry’s application will go before the board — it’s listed as No. 58 on the 11th page of the board’s 12-page agenda, which can be viewed online.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) has encouraged residents who wish to address the board to tailor their arguments to align with a list of set rules upon which the board makes decisions.

As detailed on pages 3-4 of the special use permit application, these rules include:

  1. The proposed special use complies with all applicable standards of the Chicago Zoning Ordinance.
  2. The proposed special use is in the interest of the public convenience and will not have a significant adverse impact on the general welfare of the neighborhood or community.
  3. The proposed special use is compatible with the character of the surrounding area in terms of site planning and building scale and project design.
  4. The proposed special use is compatible with the character of the surrounding area in terms of operating characteristics, such as hours of operation, outdoor lighting, noise and traffic generation.
  5. The proposed special use is designed to promote pedestrian safety and comfort.

The effect The Crib might have on the “general welfare of the neighborhood” is what has divided Bucktown residents over the past few weeks, separating most neighbors into one of three camps: wholehearted support, enraged opposition or tepid skepticism.

The Night Ministry has already signed a 10-year lease to move into the bottom three floors of a building at 1735 N. Ashland Ave. The site is sandwiched between the Kennedy Expy. and Walsh Park, and is adjacent to Jonathan Burr Elementary School.

During a string of contentious public meetings, Bucktown residents made their opinions known to each other and to leaders of The Night Ministry, a 43-year-old nonprofit.

Barbara Bolsen, vice president of strategic partnerships at The Night Ministry, has told residents the nonprofit’s primary reason for leaving Lakeview is logistical — the shelter has outgrown its current location, a one-room basement with 21 mattresses on the floor at LakeView Lutheran Church, 835 W. Addison St., she said.

The Crib’s current digs are surrounded by nightclubs, bars and other entertainment venues in Boystown — factors the city’s Department of Family Services have said drive the neighborhood’s crime rate.

The shelter’s residents are between the ages of 18 and 24 and often identify as LGBTQ. They check in at 9 p.m. after reserving a bed through a smart phone app. At 9 a.m., The Crib transports residents to the nearest CTA train stop. Most head to work, school or social services programming in Lakeview, Bolsen has said.

Last week, members of the Wicker Park Committee, a neighborhood group, narrowly voted to support the shelter. At that meeting, a man asked Bolsen why the nonprofit didn’t consult the community last year, when it settled on Wicker Park/Bucktown as a neighborhood of interest — and before it signed the lease.

“That could have been a good idea,” Bolsen said.

Contending that the homeless shelter has a history of being “bad neighbors” to Lakeview families and pointing to a 2013 SWAT team response, some residents pleaded with The Night Ministry to stop The Crib’s move to the neighborhood.

Other residents, like The Night Ministry board member Carrie Hogan, pleaded with their neighbors to have a little more empathy.

“Before you indict what’s happening there, do a little bit of research into how many people we’ve helped, and the services we provide to the kids,” Hogan said. “And but for the grace of god, those of you who have children, I hope they never (become homeless.)”

Many parents, like James Walsh, fell somewhere in the middle. In any other location, they said, they likely would have supported the idea of a youth homeless shelter.

“I think everybody in this room thinks the Night Ministry does amazing work,” Walsh said. “(But) you’ve searched for two years, and you couldn’t find a space that isn’t a stone’s throw from an elementary school? And a stone’s throw from a kid’s park? … I’m not trying to be a NIMBY alarmist in this situation. I’m really not. But it seems like it’s right on top of it.”

Jeanne Heffron, 34, wasn’t able to attend the public meetings. Reading the news coverage, however, left her disheartened.

The parent of an infant daughter, Heffron said she is eager to welcome a social services organization to the neighborhood. She wrote a letter of support for The Night Ministry that she plans to read aloud during Friday’s vote.

Even though other parents didn’t want to think of themselves as “NIMBY alarmists” — as Walsh put it — Heffron said she was deeply troubled by the “implied criminality” of The Crib’s residents.

“Aging out of foster care isn’t a crime,” she said. “Being kicked out of one’s childhood home by intolerant parents for identifying as gay, bisexual, transgender, non-conforming or any other status isn’t a crime either. Growing up without the benefit of family support or a meaningful social safety net is not a crime.” 

In her letter to the zoning board, Heffron said she’s seen “plenty of havoc” wreaked by more affluent young adults living in or visiting the neighborhood.

“I know this because I was once one of them, standing in the middle of North Avenue in a giant mass of other young people after the 2010 Stanley Cup win, no doubt protected from any legal consequences by considerable racial and economic privilege,” she wrote.

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