Old Firehouse Assistance Center again at center of controversy
By Brittany Keeperman
The city of Woodstock and the Woodstock Police Department have banned at least 17 people from the Old Firehouse Assistance Center.
The Old Firehouse Assistance Center offers meals, haircuts, showers, medical care and social services to people experiencing homelessness. The site operates out of the city-owned Old Firehouse at 120 W. South St. near the Square and City Hall. The McHenry County Housing Authority operates the center.
The ban notices circulated in May after an email sent from Woodstock Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Parsons to Mayor Brian Sager, City Manager Roscoe Stelford, Police Chief John Lieb and Deputy Chief Ray Lanz. The email was titled, “Top 20 individuals with negative police interaction” and was obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Below and attached you will find a list of the top 20 individuals who are associated with OFAC, whom we have the most negative police interaction with,” Parsons wrote.
The list includes the reasons for the interaction, ranging from littering to attempted murder to “mental health” or “alcoholic.”
The ban issued to some of those people reads:
“The city of Woodstock has identified you as an individual with numerous violations of city ordinances and local laws, as well as many negative contacts with our law enforcement personnel. Effective immediately, the city has elected to ban you from obtaining services at the Old Firehouse Assistance Center.”
If a person who received the notice returns to the center, “the exterior area” of OFAC or “property surrounding City Hall,” the police department could charge them with criminal trespassing, according to the notice.
People still can receive services at the McHenry County Housing Authority, Thresholds, PADS through Pioneer Center, the Woodstock Alano Club and Family Health Partnership in Crystal Lake, according to the notice. Housing Authority officials said those options weren’t necessarily viable.
“It’s sort of a step back to where we were before the Firehouse existed,” McHenry County Housing Authority’s community services director Sue Rose said. “The services are scattered, and asking people who have no transportation, who may have mental health issues, who may be present at an agency while they are intoxicated … is in essence not allowing them to get the services they need.”
Sager said the intention is to avoid a repeat of last summer, when residents raised concerns about homeless people around town and illegal behavior such as public urination and drinking in public.
“PADS has closed for the season,” Sager said. “It was determined that we needed to take very solid action, very quickly to avoid the experiences and circumstances that happened last summer.”
People are able to appeal the ban, and city officials, OFAC staff and police officials will meet weekly to talk about the issue, Sager said.
“We will review that list and dialogue, whether the ban should be broader, whether individuals are appealing and should be considered for reversal or have made significant and constructive progress in their transition plans,” he said.
Rose said she understood the city’s position, but the conflict might make matters worse.
“Now they have no place to eat, no place to shower and no place to get the social services they need to try and address these behaviors,” she said. “We don’t support the ban.”
The city recently renewed its lease with the Old Firehouse Assistance Center. An ordinance authorizing the lease agreement cites the city’s desire to control who has access to the site, according to city documents.
Lawrence Wagner, senior attorney with the advocacy group Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that Woodstock officials likely have the right to dictate who uses the center because it owns the property. But that doesn’t mean this is the proper approach, he said.
“My initial thought is this is more of the same,” he said. “I understand that any city wants to deal with the homeless population, but they always seem to approach it in the wrong way.
“Instead of trying to provide permanent housing, they push [the homeless] to the side – mainly because they don’t want them to be visible to people in the community who may complain about their presence.”
Wagner said he never has seen another city bar people from social service centers. The coalition is in the process of investigating the way the city treats its homeless population, he said.
The coalition is particularly interested in several ordinances that the city enacted last year related to how long people can stay in public parks and the Square.
“In my opinion, they are clearly designed to keep the homeless out of public spaces,” he said. “We believe right now the ordinances violate the Bill of Rights for the homeless. They seem neutral on the face, but intent and enforcement will violate homeless rights.”