A homeless Elgin man built himself an intricate abode in the woods. Now he's being evicted from it.
A homeless man who painstakingly built a dwelling in the woods in Elgin early last year had an unwelcome surprise last month -- he was trespassing on Fox River Water Reclamation District land and needs to move by this weekend.
Doug Henke said he believed he was on city property when he chose the spot, determined to leave "Tent City," Elgin's outdoor homeless encampment, to find peace and quiet on his own.
Bob Trueblood, the water reclamation district's executive director, said he found out about Henke's presence in November after a drone took pictures in connection with a $26 million district project related to phosphorous removal. The encampment is about 100 feet from the district's northern plant, Trueblood said.
"We had flown (the drone) earlier, but with the leaves we couldn't see the encampment," he said. "He built it with natural colors. We find blue tarps easily. He did an excellent job of using earth tones."
Henke said he started building his abode in March and moved in Mother's Day weekend, and believes workers at the water reclamation facility nearby were aware of his presence. On Dec. 9, he got a visit from a Fox River Water Reclamation District employee and an Elgin police officer, who told him he needed to move.
"They wanted me out of here immediately," Henke said. "The guy had this mindset that all this just comes down and it's a tent, you just fold it up and go. Dude, it took me two months to build this and another seven months to make it what it is now."
Elgin police Cmdr. Rick Ciganek said police responded to a criminal trespass complaint from the district, which had contacted the city to see how to best address the situation.
"While they were out there, they offered Doug services. They offered him help at the Elgin Police Department through our collaborative crisis services unit," he said. "He didn't want it."
Henke -- whom the Daily Herald profiled in a story in 2018 -- says he is homeless by choice.
"Freedom, it's very subjective," he said. "I feel I have freedom out here in a way that I don't report to anybody. I still have obligations. I have to go and do stuff -- I have to make doctor's appointments, I have to pick up prescriptions. There's still responsibilities, but they are the ones I choose. Not the ones that are chosen for me."
Hanke writes a blog on Facebook where he goes by "Arthur" and named his home in the woods "Camelot," after the legendary castle of British King Arthur. The encampment has a second resident, a man who moved into his own tent in September. The man is not mentioned in Henke's blog because he hasn't been homeless long and is adamant about his privacy, Henke explained. It's unclear where the man will move.
A matter of policy
Trueblood said the homeless encampment doesn't directly interfere with the district's construction project, but the district simply can't have anyone living on its property.
"We are just trying to make sure we protect the liability of the district," he said.
Camping has been prohibited there for about 25 years and construction sites contain valuable, and even dangerous, equipment, Trueblood said. There have been thefts reported from a district construction site to the south by Route 20, he said.
"This gentleman, I never met him," Trueblood said of Henke. "I don't know him and I don't know that he's done anything wrong. It's not about any individual -- it's about a policy we have in place."
Henke said he'd hoped to be allowed to stay until spring so it would be easier to move with better weather, but Trueblood said that's just not possible. The district, unlike the city, doesn't have the resources to deal with homeless people, he said.
"It's such a slippery slope. He should have never been there," Trueblood said. "This is not a political statement. This is not a judgment on homelessness. ... But if he has a right to be there, why doesn't the next guy have a right to be there?"
Henke said tension with other residents led him to leave Tent City, which Elgin allows on land the city owns.
Henke's home on water reclamation district property consists of an intricate frame of tall wood beams covered by tarps and plastic. Inside, there is a sitting area where he makes his morning coffee and hangs out, and a large inner tent with his bed and closet. He keeps warm with candles and a propane-fueled heater.
Henke said everything he owns was either donated or found in the woods and in dumpsters. "Nothing stolen -- I draw the line there," he said.
He has a black cat named Mayhem who was raised in the woods and comes and goes as he pleases. His first cat, Merlin, was given to him as a kitten and disappeared, and Henke fears he met a sorry fate in the woods.
His next home
Henke said his next home will be called "Aerthindell," a play on Arthur and "Rivendell," the fictional valley in the "Lord of the Rings" book series, he said.
He declined to disclose many details, other than to say it's in the woods about a mile away. "It is where the police have told me to go in the past," he said, adding he can count on help moving from people he knows.
He already built a canopy with a small tent inside at the new location and plans to start the full build out around March, he said. He will no longer sleep at Camelot after the district's deadline this weekend, he said.
"I am hoping that as long as I am physically not here, that they don't mind that it's going to take me longer to dismantle and move this," Henke said.
"As long as I am not physically living here, there is nothing but stuff for them to destroy. And frankly, I started with nothing to begin with, I can do it again. And I can do it easier now that I know how."
Trueblood said the district wants Henke to show a good-faith attempt at moving by the deadline.
"We're not going to be there with bulldozers looking to push him out on Jan. 5. But at the same time, we have to see an effort to relocate out of our property."
"I'm shocked at how far north he went," Trueblood said. "If he'd only gone halfway, we probably would have never noticed him."