Elgin's 'Tent City' is a rarity in the suburbs

Permanent homeless encampments like the one in Elgin are a rarity in the suburbs, experts say.

They are more common in warmer climates like Los Angeles, although there are also tent communities in Chicago.

In the suburbs, some homeless people wander from town to town, pulling up stakes when police make them relocate, said Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House in Aurora.

Some individuals do opt out of homeless shelters in summer, but if they live outdoors in cold weather, it's generally because they've been banned from shelters or are struggling with addiction or mental illness, Dowd said.

When asked about homeless people who say they choose to live outdoors, Dowd said he doesn't believe that's a real choice.

"In my 20-plus years of working with homeless individuals, I have never met anyone who truly chose to be homeless in any way, shape or form, whether that's on the streets or the shelter," he said. "When there are housing options that can handle individuals who struggle with mental health or addiction issues, people don't choose to live on the streets."

Hesed House is among rare "low threshold" shelters that serve people even if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. PADS of Elgin, the only year-round shelter in Elgin, allows such people in only when it's 15 degrees or colder.

However, Elgin offers a multitude of services for the homeless, including PADS, Wayside Center daytime shelter, a network for food pantries and soup kitchens, and a police social services unit.

PADS of Elgin Executive Director Sarah Ponitz said shelter staff members go out to Tent City about once a year, bringing care packages - emergency blankets, gloves, snacks - and reminding residents of the services offered. The plan is to start going more often, she said.

Some residents, especially the newly arrived, don't know about PADS and others might not be aware the shelter has loosened its admissions policy since last year, she said. PADS used to require a valid state ID but now accepts expired state IDs, work badges, Mexican consulate "matriculas" and more, she said.

People who live outdoors typically are in denial about their mental health or substance abuse issues, Ponitz said. But she didn't discount the notion that some people might simply be happier that way.

"We do have some individuals who we have termed 'service resistant.' ... When they are here, we do ask that they meet with the case manager and come up with an action plan," she said.

"Our end goal is to break the cycle of homelessness. If that's not what somebody wants to do, then we can't force them to."

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