Elgin council endorses effort to look into possible new homeless shelter

Elgin's PADS homeless shelter will lead an effort to look into possibly establishing a new shelter in town that would provide permanent supportive housing and would be open to all individuals, regardless of whether they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

One such model is Hesed House in Aurora, which provides an emergency shelter open to everyone as well as permanent supportive housing for up to 16 chronically homeless people who suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues, have physical disabilities, or other disabling issues.

PADS Executive Director Sara Ponitz told the Elgin City Council on Wednesday that a work group will be created with a variety of community members plus some city council members. The effort will include identifying sources of state and federal funding, Ponitz said.

The city will be a supportive partner but the initiative will be led by the professionals, city council members agreed.

"We're all in this together," Councilwoman Carol Rauschenberger said.

Elgin currently has about 50 to 65 homeless residents who live on the street and another 30 to 35 people who live in an outdoor encampment in the woods known as "Tent City," said Bob Whitt, who works as community engagement specialist for the city. The number of residents of Tent City dramatically decreases in winter.

Shelters that allow people to stay even if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs are called "low threshold." There are no such shelters open year-round in Elgin, although PADS allows people who are under the influence to stay when it's 15 degrees or colder. The shelter also has relaxed its "one and done" Breathalyzer policy, and now allows people to retake Breathalyzer tests multiple times until 9:30 p.m. to allow clients every chance of getting a spot overnight, Ponitz said.

PADS started 30 years ago and moved in 2007 into its current building on the west side. It was exclusively an overnight shelter until Dec. 26, when it began offering daytime services. Elgin has another daytime shelter, Wayside Cross Ministries, just north of downtown.

PADS served 423 clients at its overnight shelter during the last fiscal year, and 159 people at its daytime shelter in the last six or so months, Pontiz said. It does not allow people with "extremely violent" crime histories or sex offenders, the latter because children also stay there, she said.

After case managers helped clients obtain housing, 92 percent of clients retained their housing last year, she said. However, the effort to secure housing included much effort and "creative" approaches by case managers, including relocating clients to places like Belvidere, Rockford and Huntley, she said.

Councilman Corey Dixon said the city spends money on chronically homeless people in the form of police and ambulance calls, and the presence of homeless people downtown has hurt businesses. While the city shouldn't foot the bill for an eventual new shelter, it should have some "skin in the game," he said.

"This really needs to be a full community effort with buy-in from everybody in order to move forward," he said.

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