Elgin plans to repeal panhandling ordinance, keep nuisance regulations

Elgin plans to repeal its panhandling ordinance after a challenge by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the American Civil Liberties Union, but intends to keep its nuisance ordinance on the books.

Elgin Corporation Counsel Bill Cogley said the city stopped enforcing the panhandling ordinance after receiving the groups' letter in August. In all, 15 Illinois municipalities with panhandling ordinances were challenged by homeless advocates, who cited the application of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling related to the regulation of speech.

Elgin doesn't ban panhandling per se. The city's ordinance, which Cogley said he expects to be repealed in the next month or two, prohibits panhandling in places including in the roadway, at bus stops and in city parking lots, and "aggressive" panhandling that includes touching or blocking passage intentionally, and using profane language.

Cogley said such behaviors can be addressed by law enforcement with charges including assault and disorderly conduct.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, said the planned repeal is "good news."

Six of the 15 municipalities that got the letter in August have repealed their panhandling ordinances, Yohnka said: Chicago, Aurora, Oak Park, Peoria, Urbana, and Decatur. Elgin and East St. Louis are not enforcing them, and Cicero and Champaign are examining them, he said. The other five - Carbondale, Danville, Joliet, Moline and Rockford - haven't responded, he said.

The ACLU this week also urged Elgin not to renew its nuisance ordinance, established in 2016 with a two-year trial and aimed at curbing behaviors, such as public intoxication and public urination.

The ordinance bans from public parks and the downtown area for 90 days, and later for 180 days, individuals found guilty of three nuisances in one year. Violating the ban triggers a criminal trespass charge, punishable by up to six months in jail.

City data shows the nuisance ordinance might be having an effect, with a 42-percent reduction in public intoxication violations and a 60-percent reduction in disorderly conduct citations from 2017 to 2018, officials said.

Police Chief Ana Lalley said six people were banned in 2017 and seven people this year.

Yohnka said the ordinance amounts to "exclusion zones for people." "We still think the language is cruel and harmful, and unconstitutional."

However, the city council 7-1 voted Wednesday to make permanent the nuisance ordinance, which Cogley defended by saying it is narrowly tailored and targets behavior. Councilwoman Carol Rauschenberger cast the "no" vote.

Nuisance behaviors also include possession of open containers of alcohol, drug-related offenses, public indecency such as nudity, urination and defecation, prostitution and vandalism. Aggressive panhandling was dropped from the permanent ordinance.

Jennifer Fukala, executive director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin, said she believes the nuisance ordinance has made a positive impact on downtown.

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