Elgin city leaders: Time for real action on homelessness
The conversation about homelessness in downtown Elgin reached peak frustration Wednesday, with city council members saying it's time to have a serious discussion about funding some type of new homeless shelter initiative.
The problem is behavior such as drinking alcohol and urinating and defecating in public, city officials and local business owners say. A majority of council members approved an ordinance Wednesday prohibiting placing tents on public property, and the police department launched a 24/7 downtown patrol on Aug. 1.
The city has taken other steps to try to tackle the issue, including hosting meetings with social services providers -- of which Elgin has many -- and adopting an ordinance that temporarily bans individuals from public parks and the downtown area after they are found guilty of three nuisances in one year.
Still, the situation has gotten worse, likely with the help of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, council members agreed.
"We come up with these Band-Aids to show we've done something," Councilman Corey Dixon said. "But I'm going to be honest with you folks. We're not doing anything."
Elgin officials in the past have looked at Hesed House in Aurora as a possible model, citing its permanent supportive housing and "low-threshold" shelter letting in people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
City Manager Rick Kozal said city staff members have been working with the homeless shelter PADS of Elgin to find a new facility for a shelter that would incorporate permanent housing with support services. The city also requested a proposal from New Life Covenant Church to provide a 24/7 low-threshold shelter.
PADS Executive Director Sara Ponitz said the shelter, whose lease at 1730 Berkley St. expires in December 2021, wants to find a facility with enough space to provide permanent supportive housing with a "housing first" approach, which means clients first are given a place to live -- their most pressing need. Once that need is met, clients are more likely to be receptive to and benefit from services like case management, mental health and substance abuse counseling, job assistance and more.
National data says this approach is effective at least 97% of the time, Ponitz said.
There are also discussions with the Elgin Cooperative Ministry to potentially consolidate the city's soup kitchens into a community kitchen at the new PADS location, Ponitz said.
One possible location is the empty, city-owned building at 600 S. State St. -- where the police department conducts trainings -- about a half-hour's walk from downtown and near three bus stops and facilities for the Secretary of State and the Illinois Department of Human Services, Ponitz said.
A rough estimate, without a thorough examination of the building, shows rehab work would cost $3 million to $5 million, Ponitz said, adding the hope is the city would provide the building.
"We have an architect and general contractor ready to go. We are fully prepared to do a capital campaign to raise those funds as well as write grants for capital improvement," she said. "But to do that ... we need an address."
Pastor Abi Raices of New Life Covenant Church, 2250 W. Highland Avenue, said the church is willing to run a low-threshold shelter. But that would cost an estimated $450,000 or so to operate, plus the cost of leasing or buying space, which the church can't afford, he said.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Life Covenant Church stepped up to provide a daytime shelter for the homeless, with transportation to and from downtown, from late March to late May. The city supported the initiative with $30,000 a month, but it ended that when the state entered Phase 3 of the "Restore Illinois" plan.
Raices said that likely contributed to the increase in homeless people downtown over the last two months. The city council Wednesday did not specifically discuss restarting the daytime shelter at the church but talked about the need for short-term and long-term approaches.
Raices said he would be willing to restart the shelter, pending approval from the city and church leadership.
City council members said Wednesday they are willing to take a look at cost proposals and funding options, including possibly using federal community block development grant money, for homeless shelter initiatives.
"This is probably the umpteenth conversation we have about homelessness and we end up with the same place," Mayor David Kaptain said. "But the reason is that this city and this city council never committed the money -- and that's the discussion that we have to have."
Others agreed. "I'm willing to put money behind it," Councilman Toby Shaw said, "because it's definitely the right thing to do."