This is one of those columns that grew organically from the kernel of truth you generally find at the core of any unfounded rumor. As is often the case, the pursuit of a non-truth led to the truth, and after talking with more than a dozen people, you look up two weeks later and wonder where the time went.
And it’s in that very conversational regard that I want to thank Elgin Police Chief Ana Lalley and Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez for taking 40 minutes out of their eminently busy day to finally put the exclamation mark on this fascinating journalistic quest.
But before we get started, to quote a former disgraced President (not the current disgraced President), “Let me make this perfectly clear!” The word “homeless,” as used here, in no way refers to those individuals reeling from an unfortunate economic setback. No! Going forward, we’ll be discussing those individuals chronically on the streets as a result of mental illness or persistent addiction.
Put more simply, we’re talking about folks who are beyond any municipality’s help. No city has the resources to deal with the mentally ill on any scale, and though I like to believe redemption is always around the corner, if chronic addiction has led you to homelessness, there’s virtually no turning back.
At the outset of my fruitful conversation with Ms. Valdez and the Chief, they thought I was about to chastise Elgin for not doing enough. So, please let me also stipulate that I firmly believe The City in the Suburbs does too much for the homeless. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not issuing yet another conservative edict that utterly abrogates our duty to the least of our brothers and sisters. It’s simply a matter of the law of diminishing returns. There’s always a point at which simply throwing more money at a problem makes no discernible difference.
Lastly, the twelve plus people I sought out in this regard included Elgin police officers, elected officials, business owners, and long-time residents. And their almost unanimous conclusion was, until Elgin Public House owner Greg Shannon addressed the City Council about this issue in July, the downtown Elgin homeless problem has gotten much worse since my halcyon Elgin radio show days.
And my sources cited a number of reasons for this startling shift, the most interesting of which is, unless they’re specifically acting out, the EPD has be instructed to leave the homeless and their belongings alone. And when those officers do write a nuisance ticket, those indigent folks simply tear it up and throw it back in their faces.
Some told tales of the Spring and Chicago parking garage turning into a homeless refuge with drunks sleeping in the stairwells and the persistent odor of urine and feces permeating the entire facility. The City did install a porta-potty on one garage level only to have the homeless defecate right next to it.
Others said Blue Box Café building owner Jerri McCue spent thousands of dollars repairing and rehabbing that building’s bathroom. It’s a homeless favorite because it’s set in the hallway of that unique indoor mini mall and they can come in through the back door unnoticed.
A couple of businesses owners told me that they and Public Works are beyond tired of cleaning up human excrement behind their buildings.
Some sources weren’t at all happy with the churches, and particularly those well-meaning Vineyard Church pastors who regularly feed the chronically homeless in Carleton Park while taking no further responsibility for their well-being.
The problem with those kinds of handouts is they incite the homeless into taking over the park every summer such that children and their parents completely avoid it. One business owner regaled me with a tale of being chased from the outskirts of Carleton Park as she tried to take photographs of the homeless occupants to bring to the City.
An elected official said that just one of the downtown homeless cost the city $500,000 in 911 emergency and other city services. Valdez disputed that total amount, but she did admit there was an individual who the City transported to the hospital 77 times in one year. And that ain’t cheap!
Taken at face value, these stories left me with a what-the-bleep kind of uneasy feeling. It seemed odd that City Hall would preside over an amazing downtown resurgence only to watch those gains slowly slip away through inaction. It made no sense.
Every human being on the planet deserves a basic level of respect, but that doesn’t mean the homeless, left to their own devices, should be ever be allowed to take a business district down with them. And that’s exactly what appeared to be happening.
What further troubles me is, much as it was throughout the absurd Lt. Chris Jensen saga, Elgin City Hall seems gripped by an incomprehensible fear of some amorphous liberal force that will somehow rain down upon the city like the Holy Ghost if unduly aggravated.
On Monday, we’ll delve into the leadership vacuum that allowed this problem to persist and fester, and the steps Elgin is finally taking to restore balance to the downtown Force.