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Thursday, July 12, 2018 12:07 am

Council rejects library camping ban

Long-term solution sought

Fifteen years after the city declared a goal of ending homelessness in a decade, Springfield still has plenty of homeless people but no solid plan to address the issue.

The latest proposal by Mayor Jim Langfelder failed Tuesday as the city council in a 5-5 vote rejected his plea to close library grounds after hours and force homeless people who’ve been sleeping outside the library to move elsewhere. Just where they would go no one knows, and that was a major point for those who opposed Langfelder’s proposal.

Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., told the council that she’s already noticed an increase in the number of homeless people standing or lying or sitting in doorways and underneath building overhangs.

“You’re just pushing it off to the businesses in the downtown area,” Stott said.

After the meeting, Langfelder rejected a suggestion by Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan, who pointed out that the mayor doesn’t need council approval to close library grounds after hours. Donelan recalled that former mayor Tim Davlin in 2007 shut down the municipal complex during nighttime hours to stop homeless people from camping outside the library.

“It’s not the legislative branch’s responsibility,” said Donelan, formerly a top aide to Davlin, who in 2003 declared a goal of ending homelessness by 2013.

Langfelder didn’t directly say why he won’t ban camping via executive order, saying council debate over his failed legislative fix shows that there are mixed feelings on what should be done.

Council members and others who supported the mayor’s proposal said that closing library grounds was a matter of safety. But William Huck of Springfield, who has been talking with homeless people and preparing pamphlets on their plight, said safety concerns are precisely why the homeless are drawn to the library. Homeless women, Huck told the council, are vulnerable to sexual assault, there is safety in numbers and the library is near the police department. A fire station also is close.

“It’s because of safety – that’s why they’re there,” Huck told the council.

Langfelder said beds are open in homeless shelters.

“Individuals can go there – that’s what the shelters are for,” the mayor told the council. “Of course, there’s individuals who probably don’t want to adhere to the rules – they want to have their fun and not obey the rules, and so they may not be able to qualify, going to the shelters. … How many of you really believe you should be allowed to camp out on the library grounds? Anybody really think that? It’s just not a safe place.”

Shelter rules include bans on alcohol or drugs (pets, also, are not allowed), and so drunks and others who don’t meet conditions end up outside. The city during the past winter opened an overnight warming center with laxer rules to keep people from freezing. The city spent $32,000 on the Madison Street refuge, which was open for six months and staffed by employees and volunteers from Helping Hands, which supported closing library grounds. The city’s share of warming shelter costs included $7,000 from donations made via a City Water, Light and Power “round up” program that allows ratepayers to contribute toward initiatives for the homeless while paying utility bills.

Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor, whose ward includes the library, says the city needs a shelter that will accept folks rejected elsewhere. Langfelder agreed that such a shelter is a good idea, but money for staffing is an issue – it is not a matter of simply extrapolating expenses from what it cost to run the warming center. Langfelder said he plans to ask the council for funds during the next budget cycle, but he said he doesn’t know what such a center would cost.

Proctor joined Donelan and Ward 2 Ald. Herman Senor, Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner and Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso in opposing the mayor’s plan to close library grounds.

“I oppose this ordinance because I don’t think it will be effective,” Proctor said. “I think it’s wrong to tell people to leave a place they feel safe without providing them an alternative.”

After the meeting, Langfelder couldn’t think of a spot when asked to name a safer place than outside the library -- which is on a block with no businesses and closes by 8 p.m. -- for homeless people who cannot or will not go to overnight shelters. He also could not name a place, other than the police station, where homeless people can relieve themselves at night, when most public buildings are closed.  The city, he said, has considered installing downtown public toilet facilities to serve anyone, including the homeless and tourists. Such facilities would cost between $5,000 and $6,000 apiece, he said. The idea has been under consideration for a year, the mayor said.

Proctor said he figures bathroom facilities are needed near the library and somewhere on the fringe of downtown. Finding acceptable locations, he says, has been problematic.

“We keep running into roadblocks,” Proctor said.

Erica Smith, Helping Hands executive director, called on the city to turn the winter warming center into a year-round facility that will accept people whom other shelters won’t take. Helping Hands is willing to provide staffing, she said, but social service agencies can’t address issues on their own.

“We also desperately need strong city leadership to make this happen,” Smith told the council. “We simply cannot social-service ourselves out of homelessness.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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