Friday, March 27, 2009

The "Homeless Problem" in Arlington Heights

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.


  1. Between April & October, the months when the "PADS" program is shut down, there are somewhere around 40-50 homeless people sleeping in parks, behind stores and in other places in Arlington Heights. You don't see them sleeping behind the bushes and garbage dumpsters, but they're out there. It CERTAINLY IS an "extraordinary problem". Stop trying to minimize/deny it. Rethink your position as you slip into your comfy bed tonight.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    This blog post was written 3 1/2 years ago during a time when there was a large fight going on in Arlington Heights about where homeless people "should" or "should not" be allowed to be. The letters to the editor and comments on stories in the Daily Herald attempted to portray the situation as there being more homeless people in the library than non-homeless people and the people writing the letters were upset about how the people appeared, smelled and/or their pre-conceived stereotypes that all homeless people are dangerous and/or mentally ill.

    My point was that Arlington Heights (and all suburbs) DID have a problem with homelessness (hence the reason PADS was created) and the town DID need to find some solutions. HOWEVER, the solution could not be to simply ban people from the train station or the library because they weren't white, clean, or upper-middle class looking. My position is that homeless people should be allowed in the library, specifically, because it's my belief that they're there for numerous legitimate reasons, including using the computers to help with job searches.

    I have a long history of helping people with less than me, even when I barely had a roof over my own head. While I won't give homeless people money, I will give them gift cards to McDonald's and the grocery store. I've given homeless people my lunch on more than one occasion and then gone without. I regularly donate food to the local food pantries (you may have read my numerous posts on LMS encouraging others to do the same).

    Next time you come to LMS and bash me for your misinterpretation of a blog post written 3 1/2 years ago, please have the courage of your convictions to use your name and get yourself some context for what I've written.

  3. Hi, there! I understand your point that you cannot outright ban people based on appearance, especially in a public facility. But I think putting "Homeless Problem" in quotes minimizes the issue in Arlington Heights.

    I have been accosted multiple times by homeless/drunk men screaming and pounding on my car. (gas station on S Arlington Heights Rd in Scarsdale, library drive-through, parking lot near Arlington Park, to name a few). That's not a fun experience, especially with a child in the car.

    The situation at the library has improved since you wrote this post, and there are no longer people bathing in the bathrooms there. Arlington Heights police are very responsive when called.

    For instance, last Sunday morning, the Starbucks in downtown AH was overrun with homeless people monopolizing the bathrooms, sleeping, dancing, and storing their luggage. Well-meaning people give them money for coffee and breakfast and they camp out for hours as paying customers. I have empathy for the homeless people at Starbucks, but I also have empathy for the business that must be suffering as a result.

    I don't mean to "rant" about the homeless problem in AH, but a better solution is needed and acknowledging there is a problem is a first step.

  4. I agree, Lara! I live in Arlington Heights for the past 22 years. I go to the library quite often. The homeless are usually on the computers, making noise and storing their stuff all around the computer terminals.


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