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Uptown in the News  

July 23, 2003
Views of homeless center clash at zoning hearing
Board to decide on Uptown facility in next 30 days
By Angela R. Caputo, Lerner Reporter

Scores of Uptown residents filled the City Council chambers Friday, July 18, for a three-hour Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the fate of a much-frequented shelter for homeless women and families.

The ZBA expects to make a decision within 30 days following the hearing, giving board members a chance to review a videotape made by a resident who claims that it shows illegal activity outside the building.

A neighborhood feud has been brewing over the past couple of years, and at the heart of it is the five-story, red brick storage building, the Sylvia Center, 4615 N. Clifton Ave., which shelters approximately 230 of Chicago's poorest residents on any given night.

"When the Sylvia Center opened in 2001, we knew from the beginning that we would have to get some kind of zoning," said Sandy Ramsey, executive director of the Sylvia Center and the neighboring Cornerstone Community Outreach, which temporarily houses indigent men. "But the Department of Human Services, they understood that we were (operating) under emergency response."

The center needed to take women and families immediately, and it decided to apply for the zoning variance afterward, Ramsey said.

ZBA approval of the variance would allow continued use of the property, which is zoned commercial, for transitional residential use and a homeless center.

Testifying at the ZBA hearing on the center's behalf was Jose Sifuentes, assistant director of the Chicago Department of Human Services' homeless services and domestic violence division. Sifuentes went to the property just before it opened and found, "The facility was well-constructed and met all standards of the department," he said.

Sifuentes said the only other facility in the area that serves women, children and intact families is the Salvation Army, and it doesn't have enough space.

The center is unique in that it is among only a handful of Chicago-area "emergency-response locations where a family can go and be housed together immediately," Ramsey said.

A segment of the community has opposed the Sylvia Center, located two blocks west of the Wilson L stop, since it opened two years ago. However, the efforts to shut it down came to a head last month, when residents received letters from the city saying that the building was up for consideration for the zoning variance.

Uptown residents banded together in a petition drive that generated more than 560 signatures opposing the variance, according to David Rowe, executive director of the Uptown Chicago Commission.

The petitions cited the high volume of crimes committed near the shelter and a laundry list of 36 building-code violations that they say prove the shelter is not being run properly and is endangering the health of the community. According to city records, the alleged violations include the lack of proper zoning, a leaky ceiling and missing doorknobs, fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.

"On a daily basis, we see a lot of loitering, public drinking and urination… Most of the time it's utter chaos," said Matt Denny who operates a recording studio and lives with his wife, Catherine, on the same block as the shelter.

Denny, a 10-year resident of Uptown, dropped a bombshell at the ZBA hearing when his lawyer entered into evidence videotapes of the shelter's exterior that Denny had been secretly recording from his balcony, which he said, proved illegal activity.

Denny and other residents say the shelter is more than a public nuisance: It's a threat to their safety.

"There has been so much crime generated in and around that building," said Kathy Cook, president of the Magnolia Malden Neighbors block club. She said a homicide on July 1 occurred approximately 200 feet from the shelter and that drug dealing on the street is rampant.

But, according to the Town Hall (23rd) District's CAPS office, there's no link between the recent homicide and the shelter except for proximity. The murder was classified as gang-related.

"(The shelter's) proximity to a high-crime area doesn't mean that it is the cause of all the crime," said CAPS Co-facilitator Karen Zaccor, who helps to run community-policing meetings for the police beat that includes the shelter.

Zaccor, a math teacher at Arai Middle School and a 25-year resident of Uptown, said the block with Cornerstone has become less crime-ridden.

"Before the Cornerstone (opened in 1989), that place was dark and dangerous, and people didn't want to go near it," she said.

Closing down the Sylvia Center would only further destabilize the area and increase the uneasiness of neighbors, some say.

"(The) community is safer that there are not people strewn all over the streets," said John Donohue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

How to cope with the large number of homeless people in Uptown has long been a diverse issue within the community.

Some opponents of the Sylvia Center say they are not averse to the homeless living in Uptown; rather, they are concerned about a high concentration of poverty and its impact on the community. An inundation of homeless services in the community is creating a Mecca for homeless people, they say.

In the struggle for neighbors to see eye-to-eye, Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) called upon the community to come together and put an end to the dispute.

"We need to stop making this the polarization of our community," Shiller said. "We should be doing problem-solving … so we can improve the situation not only in Uptown but in the entire city."

Thunderous applause filled the chamber when the alderman made an impassioned statement in support of the application for a variance, which some speculate will tip the board's decision in the shelter's favor. Zoning Board Chairman Joseph Spingola said a decision would be announced within 30 days of the hearing after the ZBA reviews the surveillance tape and takes a final vote.

Ramsey said that, upon receiving the variance, the shelter intends to resolve the final outstanding building-code violations.

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