Unanimous YES: Churches Win Supportive Housing in Arlington Heights

It all started with people in churches listening to each other. And it wasn’t about gossip or chitchat. During evening meetings, group gatherings, and one-on-one conversations, trained listeners asked their fellow congregants about the concerns they have for their local community of Arlington Heights.

The church members who initiated the conversations had attended one of Community Renewal Society’s signature trainings. At the Confronting Pharaoh training, church members learned how to conduct relational meetings, identify key justice issues and begin crafting campaigns for change.

As the listeners listened, they heard a common theme. People in this particular northwest suburb were worried about the lack of local affordable housing for family members and friends with mental illness. With institutional facilities gone, individuals with mental illness now have very few places to call home.

CALL TO ACTION

This common concern turned into a call to action in September of 2016. All of the churches that had participated in the listening campaign came together for a cluster meeting with their Community Renewal Society Congregational Organizer. The Organizer helped the group determine the next step—get more people involved.

Before long, six key churches in Arlington Heights had come together to fight for supportive housing: St. John United Church of Christ, Southminster Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church, St. James Catholic Church, Our Savior Lutheran Church, and Congregational United Church of Christ. The group named themselves the Arlington Heights Faith in Action Team.

The Team was fortunate. Just as the campaign was taking shape, a 16-unit permanent supportive housing project called Heart’s Place came onto the scene. Housing Opportunity Development Corporation, a non-profit developer, had secured a site, a plan and funding for Heart’s Place. 

The Team also found an expert who could make their campaign actionable. Hugh Brady is the Co-President of North Northwest Suburban Housing Task Force for Individuals with Mental Illness. He was eager and excited to advise the Team. The only thing needed was the political will to approve the project.

THE TASK AHEAD

Gaining approval from the Village Board of Arlington Heights was not an easy task. A similar project was voted down by the Board in 2010. Many in the community wondered how this time would be any different. Others had concerns about living so close to individuals with disabilities and mental illness.

And yet, some things had changed since 2010. The earlier efforts in Arlington Heights had catalyzed supportive housing developments in neighboring communities. The Team learned about successful projects in Mt. Prospect, Wheeling and Palatine.

“People are changing their feelings,” explained Linda Waycie, a resident of Mt. Prospect and a member of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights. “Yes, there is still resistance, but as a whole, we’re slowly moving toward understanding what’s really needed.”

GETTING ORGANIZED

With renewed hope, the Team got to work using the tools Community Renewal Society had given them. They mapped out the Village Board and began meeting with those who were most sympathetic. In relational meetings, the Team made concrete yes/no asks that solidified clear support from key elected officials. They engaged their congregations in letter writing campaigns to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Housing Development Corporation Executive Director Audra Hamernik, and the Village Board.

The Team started to gain significant support. Trustee Robin LaBedz became an early champion for the campaign for supportive housing. “Once we started her talking, we could feel her enthusiasm and support,” said Linda. “This helped us find the courage to contact the next person and keep going.”

After meeting with LaBedz, the Team got several commitments over email from other Trustees who said they would vote ‘YES’. Gary Gephart, a resident of Arlington Heights and a member of St. John United Church of Christ, even cornered a board member at a local theater fundraiser to get her commitment—something he had learned to do on advocacy trips to Springfield with Community Renewal Society.

As the day of the vote approached, the Team paused to look back at the failed vote in 2010, debriefing the event just like they had learned to do at other Community Renewal Society actions. “The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) people outnumbered us the first time,” Gary described. “So we made sure we had enough of our people at the Village Board meeting.”

THE BIG VOTE

On June 19, the Arlington Heights Village Board room was standing room only. The Team wore bright red ‘YES’ stickers. Several members of the Team testified to their support for the project. Some shared personal stories about their loved ones who would benefit from the housing.

When the big vote came, the approval was unanimous.

Looking back at that day, Linda said, “We never would have done this if we didn’t have the backing and skills and ideas from Community Renewal Society.” Gary agreed, adding that “Community Renewal Society helped us know how to get organized.”

WAKING UP TO JUSTICE

The successful campaign is not just changing the landscape of housing in Arlington Heights. The churches that took part in the campaign are waking up to their part in seeking justice. “How are we drawing our congregations to social justice? One of the ways is through supportive housing,” Linda explained.

After all, advocating for justice is a central part of what it means to be a church. “That was Jesus’ model,” says Linda. “Jesus called out the leaders all the time. We’re calling out leaders to pay attention to those who need to be raised up.”

“We’re fighting for stable housing for all people.” –Gary Gephart

While there is certainly much more to be done to live into Jesus’ vision, the campaign for supportive housing in Arlington Heights is one step. And the fight isn’t over yet. The Team wants to find a new site for another permanent supportive housing development that will be home to twice as many people as Heart’s Place.

When asked for advice for other justice-oriented churches, Linda says with confidence, “Start with what matters to the congregation. How are you going to find that out? You have to talk to people! Have a listening campaign and gather the top few concerns. Pick one! Decide to work on it.”

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