Officials: If we kick people out of 'Tent City,' where will they go?

City officials in Elgin said they won't demand that residents of "Tent City" move elsewhere because that wouldn't solve the issue.

The homeless encampment is on city property in the woods between the railroad tracks and the Fox River. It's been around on and off for at least 15 years, with about four or five residents in winter and up to 50 or so in summer.

"We could ask everyone to leave immediately, but what are we doing then? Just asking people to move from one place to another," Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez said. "We need to meet people's needs wherever they are."

Elgin launched an outreach initiative last week to determine the needs of its estimated 200 homeless residents, including those of Tent City. Elgin has about 112,000 residents.

"(Homelessness) is no different than a crime problem - we need to solve it long-term," police Cmdr. Ana Lalley said. "It's not going to be a month, five months, a year. It's going to take time."

Members of the police department and its social services unit attend daily free breakfasts offered by Vineyard Church of Elgin to sit down and chat with the homeless. "We are asking what's their greatest need. Insurance? Transporation? Financial assistance? We will really begin to work on solving the problem and find the long-term solutions," Lalley said.

The results of the outreach effort are being examined this week to determine the next steps, she said.

Among those who participated was police community service officer William Homeier, or "Homie" as he's known in Tent City. Homeier is the one outsider who most likely best knows Tent City, which he visits about twice a month.

Residents of Tent City include people who have college degrees and used to hold jobs but over time faced addiction, mental health and financial problems, Homeier said. Some have been banned from local shelters and have nowhere else to go, he said.

"They may not necessarily fit somewhere. They don't feel included in some way or another. This way, they can come out here and feel like they're their own person," he said. "There is a sense of community."

At Tent City, there's a mistrust of police and a reluctance to call the cops for fear of being labeled a snitch, he said. The police and fire departments respond to any calls - most recently in April, when someone's tent was set on fire - but crime often goes underreported, he said.

"They kind of handle their own things out there," he said.

"This is a big concern, because we have people that live on the fringe of society. They don't feel included in society ... and you want them to thrive."

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