Considering that representatives of Rosecrance Health Network attended 18 community meetings in Chicago in the months leading up to a key zoning approval they received last week, the simple math equates that to three meetings for each of the six units of recovery housing they now will be able to site in the city's Lakeview neighborhood.
Was it all worth it? Undoubtedly, says Rosecrance's chief operating officer, who witnessed the best and worst of what a facility siting battle can reveal in a local community.
“The takeaway from this is being transparent,” says Dave Gomel. “It is a recipe we'll use again.”
Rosecrance had identified a Chicago site for an outpatient treatment and sober living facility for young adults ages 18 to 29; the location already was zoned to allow the outpatient continuum of services on the building's ground floor, but a special-use permit would be required for the recovery housing component on the new construction's upper floors.
The proposal generated a torrent of protest from some residents of the North Side neighborhood. While the arguments from opponents were fairly typical of the “NIMBY” scenario that often surfaces against facilities for persons with addictions, this particular neighborhood had the combination of “affluence and influence” that can sustain such efforts, says Gomel.
Yet the discussion took on a decidedly nasty tone in recent weeks when a group of opponents resorted to posting notices in neighborhood playgrounds, warning visitors with messages such as, “If Rosecrance's proposal goes through, you may have a person with a criminal record and/or mental disorder sitting here.” Looking back, Gomel sees this as the turning point in the approval process.
“This raised the ire of a couple of residents, who jumped on this and formed their own network of support,” says Gomel.
The activity around the proposal culminated in an all-day hearing before the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals on Oct. 16, in which the board heard lengthy testimony regarding the special-use permit action. Although opponents had previously submitted hundreds of signatures on petitions opposing the facility (Rosecrance says many of those signatures were actually from non-residents of the neighborhood), Rosecrance estimates that nearly two-thirds of the audience in the packed hearing room last Friday supported its proposal.
During the hearing, Gomel grew increasingly frustrated with repeated references to “those people” from attorneys discussing the individuals who would be served in the program. Finally he interrupted to say he took offense to the use of stigmatizing language. When he was subsequently asked what term should be used instead to describe the individuals, he says he replied, “How about 'brave heroes in recovery?'”
“It was one of those Erin Brockovich moments,” Gomel says.
He adds, “It was clear throughout that the opposition was based on unsubstantiated fears that people in recovery posed a different threat.”
It didn't take long last week for Rosecrance to learn the outcome. Around 10 p.m., that night, its leaders received word that the board had unanimously approved the special-use permit, allowing the recovery housing beds to go forward.