Why Elgin mayor is wary of tightening rules for items belonging to homeless people

Elgin city staff members want to tighten regulations because more homeless people are leaving their belongings in public places, but Mayor David Kaptain said their plan gives him pause.

The proposed ordinance changes, which the city council will discuss Wednesday, include giving people 24 hours — not seven days, as is currently the rule — to remove personal items before the city can impound them. If items were not reclaimed within 30 days, the city could sell or dispose of them. Any impounded property deemed “unsafe, hazardous or perishable” — such as syringes, garbage, food, items soiled with bodily fluids and items for personal hygiene — would be disposed of immediately. The proposed changes would apply to the entire city, not just downtown.

Kaptain said he questions whether that's the right approach. “They start to infringe on people's rights,” he said.

For example, he said, what if the impounded property includes essential items, like ID or medical cards? How difficult would it be for owners to retrieve their items?

“It's not as simple as it sounds,” Kaptain said. “If Seattle can't fix it (the homeless issue) and San Francisco can't fix it, how are we going to be different here?”

The goal is to ensure public spaces — including parking garages, parks and sidewalks — are safe for everyone, city staff members said in a memo to the city council.

The proposed amendments “continue to protect the rights granted under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the memo said. The Fourteenth Amendment says government shall not deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process.

Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez said the proposed regulations are based on those in place in Hawaii. Elgin has been working on addressing homelessness in ways that include reaching out to people in crisis and connecting them with service providers, while also holding them accountable for their behavior, she said.

“It's a balancing act. It's making sure we are looking at this holistically,” she said. “We want to provide a healthy, safe and vibrant community, and also make sure people have access to proper shelter and their basic needs are met.”

The city is working on determining how to store impounded items and would work with social service providers to minimize barriers to retrieval, Valdez said. Bicycles would be stored at the police department; the city's bike registration program should make it easy to return them to their owners, she said.

It's unclear why there has been an increase in personal items left on public property, Valdez said. Elgin has an estimated 200 homeless residents, and perhaps two dozen might be responsible, she said.

The city council memo includes photos of crates and plastic bags left in parking garage stairwells and even a camping tent pitched in a corner of a parking garage. The city last month purchased 200 new cameras for parking garages to better review footage after reports of incidents, Valdez said.

Kaptain has long been a proponent of installing a public toilet downtown, but other council members balked at the estimated $115,000 cost, he said.

Two portable toilets were installed this week on the first floors of the Spring Street and Fulton Street parking garages and will be serviced by Waste Management twice a week, Valdez said.

If that works well after a trial period, city staff members might move forward with a proposal for a permanent public toilet, she said.

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Wednesday, the Elgin City Council will discuss tighter regulations on leaving personal items in public places. City staff members have said the homeless population is creating unsafe conditions. courtesy of city of Elgin
This photo shows a tent pitched in the corner of an Elgin public parking garage. courtesy of city of Elgin
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