Elgin council likes idea of 24 hours' notice before impounding private property on public spaces

Balking at photos of loads of bags and even a pitched tent in public parking garages, Elgin City Council members endorsed a plan to tighten rules about private property left in public spaces.

The situation is untenable, several council members said before a preliminary 7-1 vote Wednesday, when Mayor David Kaptain was the lone "no." Councilwoman Tish Powell proposed having a special meeting to discuss the homeless issue before budget deliberations in the fall.

"I just have a hard time with allowing this type of situation to persist in our parking decks, in our downtown," Powell said. "We have invested too much time and energy in revitalizing our downtown. This is not fair to our business owners in our downtown, this is not fair to folks that frequent our downtown."

People have been calling 311 to report problems, particularly in the Spring Street parking garage, where the fourth-floor stairwell is impassable at times, Public Works Superintendent Greg Hulke said.

The proposed changes would apply to the entire city. People would get 24 hours - not seven days, as is the current 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.

Kaptain said the city needs to come up with a clear plan - including a cost estimate - about where to store impounded belongings, how to inventory them and how to ensure their owners can retrieve them easily, particularly important for items like cellphones or ID cards.

"I get very concerned these people have rights as well. They are citizens of the United States, and we are impounding their property," he said.

Kaptain asked city staff members to work with the overnight homeless shelter PADS and the daytime shelter Wayside Cross Ministries to see what storage they might offer. Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez said the city can't assume all impounded items belong to homeless people, so it would have to be in charge of storage.

Homeless people come to Elgin because there are nonprofits and churches that provide services including meals, city officials say. This week, the city installed portable toilets on the first floors of the Spring Street and Fulton Street parking garages.

Elgin doesn't need to offer "more amenities," Councilman Terry Gavin said.

"The number one goal is reduce the number of homeless downtown," he said, adding that business owners who've been there for 20 or 30 years say they fear for their safety.

Police data shows a spike in downtown calls in 2018 for things like panhandling and intoxicated people. The numbers this year so far are low, but summer is when such calls increase, the data shows.

Police Chief Ana Lalley said long-term solutions to homelessness include law enforcement but also recognizing the underlying causes often are mental health and substance abuse. The police department plans to hire three part-time crisis counselors to add to its collaborative crisis services unit, which has two officers; the city council unanimously approved that Wednesday.

Council members John Steffen and Carol Rauschenberger said they visited Hesed House in Aurora, which provides permanent, dorm-style housing for up to 16 chronically homeless people with conditions such as substance abuse, mental illness or physical disabilities.

"I think it was an impressive program and it does seem like there is a possibility for some solution (in Elgin)," Rauschenberger said.

Elgin has been working with the Chicago-based Corporation for Supportive Housing on a long-term plan to provide more housing options for the homeless, Valdez said. The city also is working on building a partnership among first responders, hospitals and social service agencies to identify "frequent users" and address their needs, she said.

Elgin has a "Tent City," an encampment in the woods along the Fox River where some individuals live year round. It's hard to determine exactly who owns that land because the city and other entities own property in the area, Valdez said. In any case, Tent City, which has been around for 15 to 20 years, "is not an area of focus right now," Valdez said.

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  Elgin City Council members endorsed a city hall plan to tighten rules about private property left in public spaces. The city this week also installed two portable toilets in downtown parking garages, shown here. Rick West/
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