Election season is in full swing here in Arlington Heights. The Daily Herald is covering all the action with daily stories, editorials full of endorsements, and legions of letters to the editor.
Reading the comments to the stories on the Daily Herald's website (and after speaking with one alarmist candidate), one could quickly come to the conclusion that Arlington Heights has become completely overrun with homeless people.
By way of background, Arlington Heights is a middle to upper-middle class village of about 75,000 in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Its motto is the "City of Good Neighbors." In the last decade or so, there has been a surge of development and revitalization in the downtown area and almost all new single family home building has come in the form of tearing down existing homes built in the 1950s and 1960s and replacing them with McMansions that in some cases fill nearly the entire footprint of the property. Like most of the other towns in the area, Arlington Heights has also experienced an increase in the number of homeless people. There are many reasons for the increase in the number of homeless citizens, but for the purposes of this post, those reasons are not important.
It's my belief, as someone who both lives and works in Arlington Heights, is a regular reader of the Daily Herald, and is also a frequenter of many businesses in downtown Arlington Heights, where homeless people are most visible, that Arlington Heights is not overrun with homeless people and that we do not have an extraordinary "homeless problem." Now to be clear, I also believe that one person without a home is too many and is problematic, but that's another topic entirely.
I also believe that those who persistently rant about the "homeless problem" are using the term "homeless" to mean "someone who doesn't look like me or fit into my image of an upper-middle class person" and as a scare tactic. I don't believe that we can simply look at someone and know with certainty that they are homeless. Given the economic times we live in, it's entirely possible that someone dressed in a nice suit and driving a car is homeless. Not all homeless people look like the stereotypical guy dressed in rags, carrying all of his possessions in a shopping cart and drinking out of a bottle in a brown paper bag. In fact, according to Journeys from PADS to HOPE, there are many homeless people living out of their cars. That could even include a Lexus.
Yes, there was a stabbing on the sidewalk that happened to be in front of the library (after the library was closed) in December 2008 and it did involve two homeless people, but from everything I've read, the stabbing was the result of an ongoing argument between these two people and not endemic of a larger safety problem in Arlington Heights.
Those who argue that we should ban homeless people from public places, such as the library, simply because they are homeless are forgetting that the library is a public place, funded entirely by taxpayer dollars, and that homelessness is not grounds for removal. I think it's a dangerous slope to suggest we start tossing people out of public places simply because we don't like what they look like. Who will decide what look is or is not acceptable? How do you know who's homeless and who's not?
Having grown up in Arlington Heights, I remember when this town wasn't "all that," when the only attraction in downtown Arlington Heights was the library, when Town & Country Mall had the only movie theater around, and residents were of far more modest means than they seem to now. The comments I keep seeing on the Daily Herald's site and the position of one alarmist candidate feel classist and completely contrary to the town's "City of Good Neighbors" philosophy.
The library and other public locations have rules of behavior that apply equally to everyone, are prominently posted, and are strictly enforced (the library's Rules of Behavior can be found here, for example). Anyone not following those rules of behavior or breaking the law should be removed from public places, but we simply cannot be tossing people out of public places because they don't look like us. That simply would not be very neighborly.