Few shelters from cold for intoxicated homeless in suburbs
Where do you seek shelter if you're homeless, intoxicated and it's 18 degrees outside?
If you live in Elgin -- or most suburbs, for that matter -- your options are limited. Elgin's year-round homeless shelter, PADS, doesn't take people under the influence of alcohol or drugs. One shelter that does opens only when it's 15 degrees or below. The police station will never turn people away, but that's a temporary solution.
Resident Greg Schiller, a longtime advocate for the homeless, says that's why he set up cots in his unfinished basement on the 400 block of Lawrence Avenue. He allowed up to 15 homeless people to stay overnight during the recent bitter cold snap -- when it was below 15 with the wind chill -- until the city ordered him to stop.
Now, he hopes the attention elicited by the story will help him achieve his longtime mission -- to open a permanent shelter that takes in people regardless of drug or alcohol use.
"It's a real need,' he said. "And I hope it can change."
The city received an anonymous complaint about Schiller's hosting homeless people and he refused entry to city inspectors Dec. 20, city spokeswoman Molly Center said. Schiller complied with an order to shut down his operation when inspectors showed up with police and a warrant Jan. 2. Schiller's basement can't be used for sleeping because it doesn't meet emergency escape requirements, Center said. The zoning ordinance also prohibits emergency shelters in single-family residences. Schiller said he doesn't blame the city.
"The codes are in place to prevent people from getting hurt," he said. "I just saw it as an emergency situation. They're not just some bums that I serve because I feel the need to do something nice. I built relationships with these people and I care deeply for them."
The city has received angry emails and hateful comments in response to news coverage, Assistant City Manager Laura Valdez said.
"Elgin's image and its community spirit is very positive, and it's unfortunate that this has been elevated to such a level," she said. "We're really proud of the services that we provide to those in need in our community."
Sarah Ponitz, executive director of PADS of Elgin, says the shelter works hard to help as many people as possible.
PADS has relaxed its residency requirements and now asks people to prove they have a connection to Elgin -- such as family or work -- if they don't live in the area. When it's 15 degrees or colder, the shelter will forego its "no intoxication" policy based on behavior, she said. The shelter uses a breath test to gauge sobriety.
"If they are well over the legal limit but they are fine, they don't cause problems, they can stay," she said. "We have policies in place to protect not only the safety of staff, but the other guests that stay here."
Those who've worked with Schiller don't question his commitment to helping the homeless.
"His heart is in the right place," said Pastor Rick Carlson of First United Methodist Church, which hosts the seasonal shelter run by The Matthew 25:40 Ministry, which Schiller used to head.
But Carlson said the church had difficulty working with Schiller, who resigned last summer. His successor, Tammy Wheatley, said the board had been poised to vote him out.
Wheatley agrees that Elgin needs a so-called low-threshold permanent shelter that welcomes everyone, regardless of substance abuse. That has also been the ministry's ultimate goal, but it's difficult to achieve because it requires great resources and lots of volunteers, she said.
Low-threshold shelters are rare and much harder to run, but worth it, said Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, one such shelter in Aurora. There are others in Rockford and Waukegan.
It's easier to help clients achieve sobriety if you let them in when they are using, Dowd said. "We found that when you care for someone who is a kind of at their lowest point," he said, "when they are ready to seek help and get services, they are more likely to trust you."
"It's something we put an enormous thought into, tweaking the system and training the staff, retraining the staff again, working with the volunteers," he said. "We've got 6,000 volunteers, and they don't all 100 percent agree with our philosophy. That creates some tension sometimes."
Schiller said he's hopeful about a church in downtown Elgin that might be interested in starting such a shelter. He's meeting with church leaders on Wednesday, he said, declining to say more.
Schiller also was contacted by The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm in Virginia. Jeff Rowes, a senior lawyer for the firm, said it is looking into whether to take on the case and fight the city's decision to shut down Schiller's operation. Governments don't have a right to impose measures that put people's safety at risk -- in this case by not allowing Schiller to shield the homeless from freezing temperatures -- Rowes said.
Schiller said that's his main concern.
"PADS does good work, but they are not the answer to homelessness in Elgin, obviously," Schiller said, "because we still have people on the street."