By Phoebe King

People were still descending into the crowded basement room of Saint Ignatius Church at the meeting’s scheduled starting time last October, filling the chairs, then the space along the walls. By the time the meeting ended more than 200 had turned out.

They’d heard rumors about a rehab project at 6806-6808 N. Wayne, a four-story brick building that had been sitting vacant since a fire gutted it almost six years ago. Word had got around that the single-room-occupancy building was being renovated to house mentally ill people, and some area residents–mostly home owners–were concerned about safety, property values, and too many social-service agencies in the neighborhood. An anonymous flyer had been posted around Rogers Park that read, “Attention Neighbors! Do you want a 44-unit Section 8 facility for mentally ill residents in our neighborhood?”

Thresholds, a 40-year-old private, nonprofit mental-health agency, bought the Wayne Street building about two years ago and will spend between $2.5 million and $4 million renovating it. The agency–which owns two other multiunit buildings and 37 group homes and leases about 90 residential sites in the city and suburbs–plans to move 44 of its clients, mostly people suffering from schizophrenia and mood disorders, into the studio apartments this May.

At the community meeting, set up about two weeks after the rumors started, many people said they felt blindsided. How could an agency plop a residence of this size in their backyard without a word to anyone? Rogers Park resident Rich McMenamin asked Thresholds administrators to postpone the project and give the community time to consider its implications.

They refused. “We intend to move this project forward,” said Jerry Dincin, executive director of Thresholds. “We’re perfectly happy to meet with the community, but we’re not stepping back.” He said the people moving in were disabled and were therefore protected under the Fair Housing Act. “We don’t have to ask your permission to come into a neighborhood. We are doing everything in a perfectly legal type of way.”

Thresholds had first contacted 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore back in May 1996, when the agency was thinking about buying the building. To get community input, Moore invited four community leaders to tour Austin Apartments, another Thresholds building similar in size to the one on Wayne.

In June the group, including a Thresholds project consultant, went to the 57-unit building located about three blocks from the Oak Park border. The visitors were pleased by what they saw. Thresholds had taken a run-down, drug-infested building and turned it into a respectable residence. The four-story brick building had a freshly scrubbed look–even the fire escape had a fresh coat of paint.

After the tour the community leaders sat down with Moore to discuss the Wayne building. Moore told them he’d received an inquiry from another developer interested in using the building for senior housing. They said that while they thought Austin Apartments was beautiful, they would prefer senior housing in their neighborhood. He told the group he would pursue that lead and let them know the outcome. That was the last anyone in the neighborhood heard about any project until last October.

Meanwhile, Thresholds had applied for city funding in the form of tax credits for the Wayne Apartments project. Moore supported the proposal with a letter to the Housing Department commissioner dated October 1996. The following spring the city denied the funding request, citing, among other things, a lack of parking. (Thresholds would be approved for state funding in mid-1998.)

At that point Moore figured the project was dead. The senior-housing idea had fallen through as well, he says, so the Wayne building “fell off my radar screen.” He says he didn’t find out until last August, when the renovation started, that Thresholds had bought the building in November 1996, before the city ruled on the funding request. But he’s not surprised Thresholds pursued the project without talking to him further. “If they don’t need anything from you, they’re going to go in,” he says. “They’ve been spurned so many times in the past they’re gun-shy.”

McMenamin has lived within two blocks of the Wayne building for 20 years. He owns his home and is active in the community, volunteering at his church’s food pantry and canvassing door-to-door during elections. He says he values Rogers Park’s diversity but has mixed feelings about Thresholds moving in. While he supports the work of such agencies, he faults Thresholds for not consulting with the community before proceeding–he thinks Thresholds pulled a fast one. He also criticizes Moore for not doing a better job of informing people in the neighborhood three years ago.

McMenamin also thinks there’s a limit to how many social-service agencies the neighborhood can absorb. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he says, “and maybe it’s a point where we say, ‘Thank you, Thresholds, but look for another community.’ For our own economic vitality we want to say, ‘Enough.'”

More than 30 agencies–including counseling centers, food pantries, substance-abuse treatment facilities, and women’s transitional housing–call Rogers Park home. Within four blocks of the Wayne building are at least five group homes and apartments housing agency-supported mentally ill people or recovering substance abusers.

Dincin says the complaints in Rogers Park are typical of what he hears wherever Thresholds opens a residence, though he has heard others. In Chicago Heights, where Thresholds is planning to open a group home, residents claim the neighborhood is too dangerous for Thresholds clients. “We know that’s a lie,” he says. “We know they don’t want mental patients there.”

Moore says he doesn’t know of any problems in Rogers Park stemming from social-service agencies or the people they serve. “We do, however, have countless meetings on problem residential buildings,” he says. “You know, landlords who don’t effectively manage their buildings, don’t effectively screen their tenants, keep their buildings in a hazardous condition.”

Moore thinks most of the fears in the community are based on what happened in Uptown and Edgewater in the 1970s. “They emptied out the mental institutions, and you had these halfway houses and substandard facilities and just plain old apartment buildings set up overnight that would house mentally ill people,” he recalls. “They weren’t supervised or cared for. They wandered the streets and panhandled and perhaps engaged in other antisocial activity, and it really harmed those neighborhoods.” But he also says that the Thresholds residences are a big improvement on the facilities of that era.

Thresholds aims to prevent its clients from being hospitalized unnecessarily, says Dincin, and it tries to help ease them into the working world. He says the Wayne building residents will have access to counseling and vocational training. A desk clerk will be on the premises around-the-clock. And at least one of the staff of seven mental-health professionals will be on-site during business hours, and often in the evening and on the weekend.

Critics say the agency dodged city zoning ordinances by misrepresenting how it planned to use the building. When Thresholds applied for a building permit it said the building would be an SRO, which means studio apartments occupied by “permanent residents.” Thresholds administrators say the clients moving into the building will be signing yearlong leases, which makes them permanent or at least long-term residents. Opponents argue that the Thresholds description of the program, which states that Wayne Apartments residents can “graduate” to more independent living, indicates that the housing will be transitional. Curiously, zoning ordinances don’t clearly define “permanent” or “transitional,” though a city Zoning Department official says a permanent resident could be on a month-to-month lease agreement.

Opponents of the building sent a letter to the Zoning Department in November, citing the transitional nature of the housing and insufficient parking as reasons to require Thresholds to apply for a special-use permit. The complaint was referred to city lawyers for an opinion, but zoning officials say they can’t do anything before the fact. They have to assume that a building will be used for the purpose listed on the building-permit application. Only if a facility is up and running and being used for something else can the city step in. Then it could require Thresholds to get a special-use permit, which usually entails endless community meetings and an alderman’s stamp of approval.

The line between advocates and opponents was already clear at the meeting last fall. Several people complained that the room was packed with Thresholds staff and clients. Depending on who was doing the counting, between 50 and 75 of the 200 people attending were affiliated with Thresholds in some way.

“I think it’s shameful,” says one home owner who doesn’t want to be identified and who charges Thresholds with bringing clients to the meeting to silence critics. “It puts people who came there to get questions answered in the position of being labeled as bigots for asking the questions to begin with. Who’s going to speak out about the bogeyman issues in mental illness when they’re surrounded by mentally ill people?”

The project isn’t without its supporters. During the meeting’s public comment session 17 out of 30 people, several of whom live within walking distance of the building, spoke in favor of Thresholds and Wayne Apartments. Lauren Sugerman lives around the corner from the building. “None of us had to go through a process to be let into this neighborhood,” she said, almost getting drowned out by groans and a sarcastic puh-leeze. “Nobody questioned me when I moved here about my race, my sexual orientation, who I planned to live with, or what capacity we had, mental or physical.”

Moore says most neighbors are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Kang Chiu, who has lived in the same house across from the building since 1955, is one of them. He’s disappointed that Thresholds didn’t keep Moore and the community informed after its initial contact with the alderman–he thinks the agency created a problem for itself by sort of sneaking in. But he also thinks that Thresholds, having spent a lot of money to clean up an eyesore and provide people with managed care, will be a good neighbor.

Chiu found it interesting that many people at the meeting were unaware that Thresholds already operates five residences in Rogers Park. Although critics argue that an eight-bed group home is significantly different from a 44-unit SRO, Chiu suggests the group homes are a good example of the agency’s ability to blend into the community.

That has been the history of Thresholds, Dincin says. Despite the opposition it meets wherever it opens a residence, he says, “What happens in every single case–once we get in there, give us one or two months and nobody knows we’re there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 6806-6808 N Wayne photos by Nathan Mandell.