So, let’s continue with part 2 of what will likely be a three-part series on the Elgin homeless issue. Again, the word “homeless” applied herein refers to those chronically street-bound folks who, due to a mental illness or persistent addiction, refuse to avail themselves of the shelters and assistance Elgin regularly offers our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
My theory continues to be that, while every human being deserves a basic modicum of respect, the chronically homeless should not be allowed to co-opt the downtown such that they erase all the gains the City and businesses owners so painstakingly achieved over the last decade.
Given the unanimous positive public and private responses to last week’s column, clearly I’m not nearly the only one with a keen perception of the obvious here.
Also, in part one, I noted it was a rumor that set me on this journalistic quest. And that rumor was one or more city councilmen wanted the five-week experiment assigning two Elgin officers to the downtown 24/7 to fail, because they feared it would drive the homeless out into the neighborhoods.
And when the new program racked up 82 grand in overtime expenses in such a brief time, there seemed to be something to that hearsay. Ah! But as is often the case, the only thing right about that rumor was the overtime amount.
First, as Chief Ana Lalley and Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez explained, the homeless congregate in the central downtown area because that’s where the food, and thus, the free handouts are. Since there are generally no food outlets in the neighborhoods, the homeless have no incentive to migrate there. That means the worst consequence of any Elgin homeless enforcement effort is driving them to the downtown fringes as is currently case.
As for all that overtime, a spate of recent retirements has relegated the EPD to between 13 to 21 officers per patrol shift. And to pull two of them into dedicated downtown duty would put another area of the city at risk, so overtime was the only option.
As we speak, the EPD is in the process of training new officers, but that’s a year-and-a-half proposition and some of the candidates fail to make the cut.
Then there was the “leave the homeless and their belongings alone unless they act out” edict I previously described which turned out to be only partially true. It’s a lot like one of those Star Trek episodes where two civilizations have been at war for centuries, but no one can remember who or what stated it, so they just keep on fighting.
If there ever was such a City or EPD directive, it appears to go back to the previous City Manager Sean Stegal and previous Police Chief Jeff Swoboda, but it may even predate them. Since that information came from a couple of police officers, Chief Lalley said she’d make sure her department is aware that no such order exists.
Another source said the EPD has, indeed, been intensifying their homeless enforcement efforts with promising results.
But the best news is, that five-week downtown police presence worked so well the affected business owners collectively lauded the new “calmness.” In light of that success, Elgin has recently implemented or will proceed with the following new measures:
- More informational signage
- New HD cameras
- Interactive parking garage kiosks
- An updated personal property removal ordinance
- A new downtown neighborhood watch
- Hiring a downtown ROPE Officer
Last fall, signs were installed in each of the downtown parking garages outlining behavioral expectations as well as providing phone numbers for assistance, and there have been fewer homeless sleeping and storing personal property in those facilities.
New hi-def cameras have been installed in the Spring Street parking deck which has seen the most homeless activity. The other parking structures will receive theirs shortly. The new cameras make it much easier to identify anyone committing an illegal act.
An updated ordinance requiring a 24-hour notice, instead of the previous seven days, before personal property is removed and impounded has resulted in less belongings being stored in public places, and particularly in the parking garages.
An interactive “kiosk” will soon be placed in each floor of the City’s three parking decks featuring a split screen display with rotating announcements and a live feed of each floor. That means no surprises as you make your way to your vehicle. Signs will be also be placed in the kiosk areas encouraging people to report questionable activities.
Since the police can’t be everywhere, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, in partnership with the Elgin Police, just created a downtown Neighborhood Watch, and Elgin is in the process of hiring a downtown ROPE officer (Resident Officer Program of Elgin) to better keep tabs on those pressing business district issues.
The bottom line is, City Hall is not nearly giving up on bringing balance to the downtown force as some sources – and even I – thought might be the case. And that’s the best news. But while Ms. Valdez, the Chief, and yours truly certainly see progress and potential future successes, the acid test will be how effective these measures are during the warmer weather months.
Though there’s always a collaborative effort involved in these kinds of municipal sea changes, as far as I can see, the catalyst behind these new initiatives is Elgin Public House owner Greg Shannon who appeared before the Elgin City Council last summer to tell them just how bad the chronic homeless problem had become.
Considering the lingering downtown Chicago street parking shortage, I’m sure Shannon was beyond frustrated with the nearby municipal garage being turned into a rather large homeless toilet. Again, Shannon isn’t the only one who complained, but he is one of the few with the cojones to directly address the City Council and demand action. Sometimes that’s all it takes!
That said, I still firmly believe this is a case of Elgin succeeding despite itself.
I’m convinced the only reason the homeless situation is suddenly improving is the combined efforts of Assistant City Manager Valdez and Chief Lalley. Without their capacity to accurately perceive a problem, reduce it to its least common denominator, and come up with a set of innovative fixes, this scenario would’ve likely ended with the five-week downtown patrols becoming an occasional and expensive band-aid solution.
So, along with Shannon, those two deserve a boatload of credit for being willing to tackle the downtown homeless problem head on. And I firmly believe it will continue to improve as a result.
In Wednesday’s (1/29) part three, we’ll discuss the Elgin leadership vacuum that incites a fear-based reactionary City Hall and the semi-phantom liberal force behind that pervasive and often crippling anxiety. The City Council certainly doesn’t seem too terribly interested in truly addressing this issue, either.
We’ll also talk about the lack of effective Elgin communication such that I had to explain these downtown initiatives to you. How did this generally good news stay under wraps? We’ll cover how, by consistently enabling the chronically homeless, Elgin’s Churches and pastors make this, and other problems, far worse than they need to be.