In a standing room only crowd Wednesday night, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, led a meeting Wednesday evening alongside city officials where he presented a proposal to turn the Diplomat Motel into transitional housing with a variety of on-site services for homeless residents of the ward.
Through the new proposal, the Diplomat Motel at 5230 N. Lincoln Ave. would be redeveloped following in the steps of a pilot project in 2020 by which a handful of downtown hotels, including Hotel One Sixty-Six in the Gold Coast, were transformed into supportive housing for 259 individuals.
“The purpose of this model is to pair housing plus services, to position people to become able to live independently in the community,” said Matt Richards, deputy commissioner for behavioral health at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CPDH), who helped with the project for hotel housing during the pandemic.
City officials have touted that pilot project as a success, saying it allowed unhoused people to find jobs, stable housing and more permanent healthcare during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an estimated 65,611 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2020, an estimate different from that offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because it takes into account people living doubled up or temporarily staying with others.
Conversations about social services for homeless Chicagoans have collided with citizens’ concerns over the arrival of hundreds of migrants being flown and bused from the U.S.-Mexico border into the city since late August 2022. Most of these asylum-seekers have had to set up camp at police stations since at least January as city services and homeless shelters are overwhelmed.
At Wednesday’s community meeting in the auditorium of Swedish Hospital’s Anderson Pavilion, these tensions were evidenced between ward residents as an attendee interrupted Vasquez before the presentation and complained about migrants, evoking applause and boos alike from the audience.
“I was pretty clear at the outset: this is not for the refugees or the migrants. These are folks who are experiencing homelessness and need the support systems,” Vasquez said later on. “So it’s not that this (plan) is going to deal with the refugees that need services — it’s that the city doesn’t have the infrastructure for any of them, period.”
Richards also reiterated that the Diplomat Motel plan is not meant to address the migrant crisis in Chicago. “That is certainly an important part of the housing challenge in the city — this program is not specifically addressing that challenge,” he said.
The housing crisis in Chicago exists in a continuum, he added. In that same vein, he argued that congregate housing may be challenging for anyone with a serious mental health, substance use or physical health condition.
So the plan for the Diplomat Motel would be to turn its 46 rooms into 40 individual living units and offer its residents additional services such as mental health support and medical care during a three- to six-month stay.
“Most fundamentally, we’re trying to create a pathway out of homelessness for people that are currently homeless and are living with untreated physical health and behavioral health conditions and that that was the primary reason they became homeless in the first place,” Richards said.
One of the goals of the program is to address homelessness among people who already live in the 40th Ward, and possibly residents from adjacent communities who might benefit from the model, Richards said. To be eligible to live in the redeveloped Diplomat Motel, a person has to: be experiencing homelessness, be identified as someone who would benefit from integrated healthcare, be at high risk if they acquired COVID, be someone who cyclically uses emergency services or be living with a behavioral health condition.
Meredith Muir, program manager for the Chicago Recovery Plan at the city’s Department of Housing (DOH), said her department has been gathering information for the past six months from staff on the frontlines of homelessness and people who have experienced homelessness.
“Seventy percent of the people who have experienced homelessness (that) we’ve talked with have indicated this need for higher level of services,” Muir said. She quoted an interviewee as saying, “I still need services. For me, I need the housing where they can keep an eye on you. Me, personally, I don’t trust myself out there. I just want the services and my own space. I need the connection.”
Since May 5, the 40th Ward office and city officials have asked city partners to bid on the project. Their proposals will be evaluated by the CDPH and the DOH to determine what delegate agency — which could also be a partnership among agencies — is best equipped to offer a wide range of non-negotiable services including health care, case management, care coordination, property management and security.
The proposals will be evaluated in the next two weeks. After the agency selection, the city would work to acquire, zone and rehab the building. This would mean going through City Council for acquisition authority in June and July and for appropriate zoning in September, as well as working with an architect to renovate the motel. The hope is that the program would start operating by the end of the year, Muir said. There will also be another community meeting in August.
During the Q&A portion of the meeting, some residents expressed concerns for their safety if the Diplomat Motel eventually does become transitional housing. An attendee said homeless people with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia might be more prone to violence, but Richards quickly shut down that notion.
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“A very, very, very consistent finding in research is actually the opposite of that is true. People living with (a mental health condition) are more likely to be victimized, and not perpetrate, violence,” said Richards. “If somebody had a history of violent behavior, they would not be appropriate for this setting if we thought it was going to represent a risk to other residents or to staff.”
Being a licensed clinical social worker himself, Richards said, he believes the “gift and challenge” of his work is “caring enough about people to journey with them when they’re struggling,” he said. “So this model is really about powerfully journeying with people and helping them make important changes in their life.”
Maureen Carroll, 81, a resident of the 40th Ward since 1967, said she has a family member who has been unhoused for two decades mainly because of a mental health condition.
“We have people in our ward already, who live here, who grew up here, who were born (here) — and through no fault of their own now have problems that their families, myself included, cannot solve,” Carroll said. “But I cannot help them. This sort of program, if it is feasible and if it works, is something we need.”
In response to other comments and questions about public safety, Vasquez introduced Capt. Carlin Morse from the Chicago Police Department’s 20th District, which is headquartered a couple of blocks away from the motel. Morse assured attendees that Chicago police will closely work with the city, the 40th Ward office and the selected agencies to draw up safety plans.
“Remember, we’re all in this together. We may not all agree, we may get excited over various understandings and misunderstandings of what the plan is,” Morse said. “But we’re here because we love our community. We just want to make sure that we’re all here…helping individuals transition on to greener pastures.”