How Elgin City Council candidates stand on homelessness

As Elgin prepares plans for their North Grove redevelopment area, a renewed focus is on the city's homelessness issue downtown.

Nine candidates for four available at-large seats on the city council have each weighed in on the problem during numerous forums.

The current city council, which includes incumbent candidates Rose Martinez, Tish Powell and John Steffen, unanimously approved a plan to build temporary shelters for the city's homeless population during budget discussions.

The council set aside $940,000 for the project to buy land and build individual shelters for about 50 homeless individuals, many of whom live downtown or in a tent city near the entrance of the redevelopment area. The "shelter village" would include space for services like food, mental health and substance abuse counseling.

All the candidates - including challengers Christina "Tia" Aagesen, Diana Alfaro, Marcus Banner, Ismael Cordova, Karin Jones and Anthony Ortiz - have said they support a transitional housing model that focuses on getting people off the streets.

Cordova has a unique perspective on the situation. He says he left home at 16 and lived out of his car for about two and a half years. He said there are lots of people in the same situation he experienced.

"Tent city is a very grave version of homelessness," he said, noting that many more people are sleeping on others' couches or in their cars.

Cordova says transitional housing should be free for people struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity. He also said that in-house resources need to be provided for job applications, clothing, educational opportunities and career training in addition to medical and behavioral services.

"The continuity of care is so essential to moving forward," Cordova said.

Alfaro also suggested providing career training, which she says should focus on high-paying jobs like alternative and clean energy.

"The ideal is not only to provide them with housing and these services but also in a way that they become sustainable long term," she said.

Aagesen, who works in the social service sector with Feeding America, said the problem with Elgin's approach in the past is that there have been too many people at the top making decisions without engaging the people who would be affected. She said the city should be working with people like Cordova to "ensure that their input is first and foremost.

"I think that's part of the missing equation," she said.

Both Aagesen and Banner said the city needs to start figuring out what is causing the problem.

"We have to look upstream and start considering some of the challenges that put these people in this place to begin with," Aagesen said. "If we don't start acknowledging some of the housing problems or even wage problems that get people here to begin with, we're never going to solve this."

Banner said the focus can't be on just the surface of the issue.

"If we're going to address the issue, we gotta get to the root of the issue," he said. "You've got to deal with each individual at an individual level."

Ortiz has suggested working with the Kane County sheriff's office and utilizing treatment programs similar to what they offer inmates.

"We could take some of that plan and see how we can help the homeless individuals that also may need more help than just finding a home," he said. "They might have underlying issues that we need to help them with because this is a human problem. This is not an individual problem."

Both Jones and Martinez said there will always be some people who will live in a tent city simply because they don't want to live by societal norms.

"We need to recognize that there's going to be people that are never going to accept assistance," Jones said.

Still, she said Elgin's array of social services must be leveraged to help with mental health and drug and alcohol addiction for those who want it.

Powell, who helped convene the city's homeless summit a couple of years ago, said no matter what they do, she wants to make sure homeless people are treated with dignity and respect.

Steffen said he hoped the city's project would cause groups serving the homeless to work together and "knock down the silos." While he voted for the mini shelter initiative, he said he favors a model like Hesed House in Aurora with a larger centralized area, where service agencies come to meet with people and work on their issues.

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