Gurnee mayor criticizes trustee for 'shaming' panhandlers
Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik is criticizing a village trustee for "shaming" panhandlers seeking money near a busy intersection by posting images of them on social media while trying to call attention to a perceived problem.
In addition to his Facebook postings, Trustee Don Wilson raised the panhandling issue during two village board meetings last week. At one session, Wilson left the village board dais to address the audience and his fellow elected officials from a microphone during public comment time, then he raised questions on a following night at a presentation about East Grand Avenue.
Wilson said he's concerned about the safety of drivers and the panhandlers who have been getting near or into traffic principally at Route 41 and Grand Avenue. He told his village board colleagues the issue should be addressed.
"I've sent a message to everyone, but what we haven't had is a conversation -- a conversation -- about that," Wilson said.
Wilson said he's seen at least six panhandlers approaching drivers at or around Route 41 and Grand Avenue. He said residents have contacted him with concerns.
However, Kovarik said Wilson has been using the wrong tactics for the past couple of months in calling attention to what anecdotally appears to be an uptick in panhandling on the village's east side.
She said it's inappropriate for an elected official to post pictures on social media of those seeking money and that Wilson chose to "grandstand" by addressing the issue at the public comment microphone and during the meeting on how to revitalize the Grand Avenue corridor east of Route 41.
"Mr. Wilson's behavior goes far beyond what he did at that microphone," Kovarik said. "He has been shaming and humiliating human beings on social media. And I just find that unbecoming of a trustee."
Wilson, who said he was representing concerned residents and not grandstanding at the microphone, contends the social media images are not shaming anyone because many drivers can see the panhandlers for themselves. About 16,500 vehicle trips occur daily at Grand and Route 41, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
"The number of people on my Facebook page is tiny compared to the number of people that drive by that Gurnee intersection daily," Wilson said. "It has been Gurnee residents that have reached out to me with this concern and they have shared it on their Facebook page as well."
Kovarik said the village already has ordinances that police may use if they consider panhandling to be a problem.
Gurnee Deputy Police Chief Willie Meyer said officers have been trained to use compassionate education when dealing with panhandlers. He said officers typically will give an information card to a panhandler that on one side explains a panhandler's responsibilities because asking for money is not illegal, with the other side listing local resources for assistance.
Meyer noted panhandling has been found to be constitutionally protected free speech.
"We seem to get more calls recently on panhandlers, but there are only two or three individual panhandlers in town on average," he said. "I think that more people are just calling in on them. Most of the calls are 'check on the well-being' type of calls."
In 2014, Kovarik used social media to post a message urging people to not encourage panhandlers by giving them money. Her announcement resulted from a woman, man and four or so children stepping into traffic and seeking cash from shoppers in a parking lot near the Target store in the Grand Hunt Center west of Gurnee Mills.
Kovarik's post on the issue two years ago did not include photographs of the panhandlers. She wrote that those who wished to help the less fortunate should donate to the PADS Lake County homeless-assistance agency or to the Salvation Army.
Wilson said he's asked the Grand Avenue panhandlers if they want assistance and only one expressed interest.
PADS officials say it's better to refuse someone on the street who is begging for money. They say donations to organizations such as PADS can lead to long-term solutions and care to the needy.