Editorial: Different approach to homeless worth a try
Most shelters are overflowing with homeless people on these cold nights. And yet, some people don't go to them, preferring to take their chances on the street even in the dead of winter.
They have many reasons, from lack of transportation to long lines for admission to fears about theft of belongings or violence. And this one: Most shelters won't let people in who are intoxicated or high on drugs.
That issue arose in Elgin during this month's below-zero spell when longtime advocate for the homeless Greg Schiller was ordered to stop letting people sleep overnight in his basement, which did not meet requirements for such a use. He said he did not allow alcohol or drug use, but didn't turn away people who arrived intoxicated.
He and others point to the paucity of shelters that take in people who've been using. A PADS shelter in Elgin, for instance, uses breath tests to gauge sobriety but relaxes its "no intoxication" rule if temperatures drop below 15 degrees.
The issue evokes sharp reaction and mirrors a national debate that encompasses moral and religious beliefs as well as concerns about community safety and the cost of operating shelters.
It's basic human decency to protect people from dying of the cold. We're sympathetic to Schiller and others who advocate for more so-called "low-threshold" facilities, which have fewer rules for people to spend the night.
Location can be a hurdle, with businesses and residents legitimately concerned about safety. Yet, the experiences at Elgin's PADS on the nights when rules are relaxed and at shelters in Aurora and Waukegan that do allow intoxicated people inside show the issue can be managed.
Low-threshold shelters require more staff and volunteers, said Ryan Dowd of Hesed House in Aurora, one such shelter. But boiling the debate down to dollars alone, it's cheaper to provide a bed in a shelter than in a jail or emergency room, where drunk or high homeless people might otherwise end up.
Would low-threshold shelters increase the odds of moving people into treatment, as Dowd believes? It's at least worth trying as an added approach to helping homeless in the suburbs.