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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 09:01 pm

Holding steady

At least give Bartolomucci credit for raising the profile of the homeless

Springfield’s homeless problem has been brought to the forefront in recent weeks by an unlikely source, and the issue appears to have regained some momentum.

This week, the City Council resoundingly rejected three ordinances proposed by Ward 5 Ald. Joe Bartolomucci, a Republican, ostensibly to alleviate homelessness but really to keep homeless people from hanging around Lincoln Library.

The first piece of legislation, which called for the repeal of pay raises for some elected officials recently approved by the council, received bipartisan support on the officially nonpartisan council. Democratic Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz and Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney, who voted against the original pay-raise ordinance, joined Bartolomucci and Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards in voting in favor of the proposal.

Two additional ordinances — one to ban camping on city property, another to allow it — also went down in flames, with just Bartolomucci and Ward 7 Ald. Judy Yeager voting yes. Bartolomucci says that corporation counsel Jenifer Johnson advised that other prohibitive language, such as “loitering” or “sleeping,” could be challenged in court.

A fourth Bartolomucci proposal to form a commission to examine homelessness, despite the existence of a mayor’s task force on homelessness, was delayed for a vote.

This could be seen as small victory, Bartolomucci says, but he’d hoped for a vote.

“I fear that this mayor’s task force can be done away with at any time, either by this administration or the next,” Bartolomucci said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“If it is an ordinance, if it is in commission form, it’ll be here forever and it’ll be held accountable — something which I don’t think we have now.

“The City Council really showed its colors,” in voting down his ideas, Bartolomucci tells Illinois Times. “It’s much akin to walking down the street and seeing a homeless person. You only have to deal with it for 10 to 15 seconds and then turn away,” Bartolomucci says.

The last time the council took a hard look at homelessness in Springfield was during a debate over whether the Salvation Army could build a community center and transitional shelter on J. David Jones Parkway, across from Oak Ridge Cemetery.

In that instance, the council voted against the Salvation Army’s request. It took Bartolomucci’s controversial ordinances, not the needs of homeless individuals, to stir the debate again.

Meanwhile, agencies responsible for providing services to the homeless appear to be struggling just to hold the line.

Melissa Huffstedtler, co-chair of the 70-agency-member Heartland Continuum of Care, says that overall the number of people living on the streets is down this year, although the group has seen an increase in the numbers of homeless women and children.

“It’s stayed pretty steady,” Huffstedtler admits when pressed by Edwards.

In 2003, Mayor Tim Davlin laid out his plan to end chronic homelessness by the year 2013 and formed a task force to make it happen. In the past year, Huffstedtler says, the Heartland Continuum, which works closely with Davlin’s task force, has annualized its goals into steps to be achieved each year.

The head of the mayor’s task force, John Kelker, isn’t opposed to creating a commission but believes that Bartolomucci should have reached out to social-service agencies that work with the city’s homeless population.

“We have seen people rally because of this; I would hate to see it politicized into a commission,” Kelker said, speaking before the council.

“It would be ridiculous for any of us to think that by policy, by regulation, we can tell people where and when they can be somewhere. It would be ridiculous for us to believe that’s how you address homelessness.”

Davlin, too, weighed in, saying that to reduce the number of people working on solving the homeless crisis would be ludicrous.

But the task force has been in effect for three years — more than enough time to get things done, Bartolomucci says.

“Three people talked about objectives, goals, and more and more committees being formed, and all I see is an increase in homeless,” Bartolomucci says. “Just looking at the street, what we’ve got just isn’t working. [The task force] is a good idea, but forming a commission would get a lot more accomplished.”

Bartolomucci, who called for reductions during the most recent round of city budget talks, says he would like to see money set aside specifically for homeless services and “would probably be inclined to sitting down and chatting” with people such as Kelker and Huffstedtler in the future.

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