By Ben Joravsky

On March 10 the South Lakeview Neighbors will vote one more time, and the great debate over Deborah’s Place may be put to rest once and for all.

If the Neighbors vote yes, the not-for-profit housing center will install housing for homeless women in the old convent of Saint Alphonsus Redemptorist Church, at Wellington and Lincoln.

If they vote no, as they did last May, Deborah’s Place might have to look elsewhere for housing. Or positions could harden, turning this into one of those prickly, larger-than-life neighborhood fights that last for years.

Developers are already circling the property, ready to swoop down with million-dollar proposals for town houses and condos. “I can’t believe all the changes in the community this issue represents,” says Father Joseph Morin, the priest in charge of Saint Alphonsus. “I had a developer offer me $1.5 million for the convent. That’s unbelievable. I never thought it would come to this.”

Morin’s old enough to remember a time when it would have been unthinkable for residents to rise up to block a church from doing what it wanted with its property. For much of his adult life Morin worked in other parts of the country, but he grew up in Lakeview in the 50s and remembers Saint Alphonsus as a key institution of a working-class neighborhood. “It had the school, and the big auditorium–it just took up the block,” he says. “The children went to the school. You went to church on Sunday. It was the community.”

The church remains a landmark–its Athenaeum Theatre building houses several local arts groups, and many organizations, including South Lakeview Neighbors, meet in its school basement. But attendance at Sunday services is falling, as families either retire to the suburbs or are forced out by gentrification. “I lived here my whole life, but my children don’t,” says Ann Moeller, a parishioner. “They probably couldn’t afford to.”

When Morin returned to Chicago six years ago, called back by his order to oversee Saint Alphonsus, he found the church in disarray. “We were down to four nuns in the convent– and most of them were ready to retire,” he says. “We needed to do something income producing with the property.”

Deborah’s Place, a highly regarded not-for-profit housing center for women, seemed like a natural fit. “We needed a new home to lodge our two-year transitional housing center and an overnight shelter,” says Sister Patricia Crowley, Deborah’s Place’s executive director. “We looked at 80 different properties, and Saint Alphonsus was the best.”

There was only one problem. The convent was not Father Morin’s to give to Deborah’s Place, at least not without a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, whose members generally accede to the wishes of the local alderman, in this case Terry Gabinski. “We went to Gabinski and he told us we should meet with the neighbors,” says Morin. “He said he would do what they wanted.”

So on May 13, 1997, the South Lakeview Neighbors held a hearing at the church. As far as the organization was concerned, this was about time. “We had an open mind,” says Dan Amati, the president. “But we were a little concerned they had not come to us first.”

In retrospect, the church and Deborah’s Place blundered by not turning to the community before seeking Gabinski’s approval. After all, Lakeview is well-known for its outspoken activists who demand self-determination. A community meeting over something as routine as postal service is likely to extend into the wee hours, as residents rise to deliver impassioned pleas or indignant speeches.

Last May’s hearing was no exception. Deborah’s Place trotted out a band of volunteers and officials who documented the center’s history, describing how it’s grown since being founded in 1985 into one of the most successful housing centers in the city, with an overnight shelter, a daytime support center, and a four-month transitional center offering housing, counseling, and job training at two north-side locations. And then the residents began asking hard questions. “We thought we were very fair with them,” says Amati. “Usually we allow 20 minutes for a presentation, but we gave them two hours. And they still didn’t answer our basic concerns. They had volunteers and lawyers and Pat Crowley and Father Morin speak, but none of them could offset safety concerns about having a housing shelter next to schoolchildren.”

The vote was 116 to 78 against Deborah’s Place. True to his word, Gabinski said he would oppose the special-use permit.

Under the gun, as its current lease was about to expire, Deborah’s Place and its allies launched an aggressive campaign. Members of the Lakeview Action Coalition, a relatively new community group, began soliciting signatures of support from residents, children, and politicians. Hardball activists from United Power for Action and Justice, an Alinsky-style city and suburban group with close ties to the Catholic Church, were brought in to oversee the media campaign.

Reporters were called and articles written in which the opponents were dismissed as greedy or bigoted; flyers were distributed depicting the South Lakeview Neighbors as puppets of the developers; a recent candlelight vigil drew more than 800. There was even an attempt, feeble though it was, to pack South Lakeview Neighbors with new members loyal to the Deborah’s Place cause. “We started getting requests from Wilmette, from Waukegan–from the John Hancock building,” says Amati. “Someone even wanted to register her infant child as a member.”

These tactics have only steeled the resolve of Deborah’s Place’s opponents. Over the summer South Lakeview Neighbors voted to freeze its membership. Someone wrote asking Morin’s order to remove him from the parish. The letters of support were dismissed as the work of “outsiders,” sparking a lively debate over who lived where first.

“The people who support Deborah’s Place live in Lakeview. We are here,” says Ann Moeller. “We are not outsiders. We are longtime residents who welcome Deborah’s Place to our community.”

“It really doesn’t matter if you live in the greater Lakeview community,” counters Amati. “What matters is if you live right near where the homeless shelter goes. It’s easy to be supportive if you live on the other side of town.”

As the debate moved into the new year, developers paraded by to offer Morin big bucks for the convent. “We started hearing from developers almost from the day after the May meeting,” he says. “They said they wanted to keep the building’s facade but build something into it, like condos. They started offering me $550,000. At the time it seemed like a lot–but now I realize it was an insultingly low offer. I told them no.

“I told them all no. First of all, it’s not my building to sell. It belongs to the Redemptorist Brothers. Second of all, selling it to a developer would not be in line with our social mission. They tell me, ‘But don’t you want market value?’ I tell them, ‘This is not about market value. It’s about our mission.’ But no matter what I say they keep coming back. These guys just don’t understand the idea of mission.”

For his part, Amati says the community has been widely misunderstood. “The neighborhood gets unfairly painted as though we’re evil little yuppies concerned about our property values,” he says. “The fact is, we worked with the Lakefront SRO when they put their SRO in at the old Bel-Ray Hotel. That group knew what it was doing. They answered our questions. But with Sister Crowley, every time I meet with her it’s always the same. I ask her for statistics on success rate and she says it’s roughly 70 percent. I say what happens to the other 30 percent? And, well, it’s, ‘We don’t know.’ She told us that last year five people were expelled from the program. Well, why were they expelled? She doesn’t know. I said, ‘You apply for grants. Don’t they ask you questions?’ She said no. I tell her, ‘Please, I have to go back to the neighbors and tell them why this is a good program.’ And they say, ‘It’s a good program because the church supports it.’ I say, ‘Fine, I respect the fact that the church supports it. But why do they support it? What can I say to the people who live within 250 feet?’ And there’s never an answer.”

Crowley says she and her allies have been forthcoming. “We tell them the facts–76 percent of our women who come to us move on to permanent housing, that is, they become self-sufficient,” she says. “We have had almost no trouble with our neighbors at our other locations. We told them that many times. We certainly aren’t hiding anything. They can read our literature. They can interview our funders. They can visit our site. They can listen to what we tell them. But people want to listen to what they want to listen to.”

To compromise with the residents, Deborah’s Place has dropped the plans for an overnight shelter. But Amati says he thinks his organization will vote no anyway. The matter’s complicated by the fact that Gabinski’s scheduled to retire by the end of March. And without a strong incumbent in the ward, there’s a chance that Mayor Daley might overrule the neighborhood organization and direct the Zoning Board of Appeals to issue the permit. So Deborah’s Place supporters vow to continue their campaign. “We’re hoping to convince the people who are already in the organization,” says Morin. “We hope the rhetoric will fade and they’ll follow the facts.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ann Moeller, Patricia Crowley photo by J.B. Spector.