Sunday, November 12, 2017

Let's "Make Oak Lawn Great Again"

Let’s “Make Oak Lawn Great Again”
Or “Let’s Send ‘em all back to Chicago”

In the centuries before and during the Old World’s exploration of the New Americas, villages constructed walls around the towns to protect against unfamiliar vagabonds and unwanted vagrants.  In fact, many historians conjecture that Wall Street in New York was originally the site of a large wooden rampart running along the boundary of the busy and growing New Amsterdam. 

Up until this last year, there was little fascination with building walls in America.  Now, walls are in.  Lines need to be drawn.  Political correctness and civility be damned.

Of course a south-side suburban village like Oak Lawn couldn’t exactly be expected to build a wall anymore. It’s impractical.  Villages are contiguous and rely upon the free flow of people for commerce and education and even worship through adjoining neighborhoods.  So, what to do?

Enter stage far right: an Ordinance to protect against those vagabonds and unwanted vagrants in Oak Lawn.  In short, let’s Make Oak Lawn Great Again by constructing a restrictive ordinance to make it difficult if not impossible for vagrants to find any safe harbor in our village. 

Not a wall of bricks or mortar, but words.

The crowd attending the Nov. 7th Meeting.  
Last week, on Tuesday, November 7th, the Planning and Zoning/Development Commission convened last week to weigh an earlier proposed ordinance put together by the Oak Lawn Board of Trustees to apply updated restrictions to the institutions in the village that housed the homeless: Their job was to endorse or block the plan to implement changes in the way “temporary shelters” are managed and operated in the Village of Oak Lawn.  A third option would have been for the Board to table the proposed ordinance until further discussion between the Oak Lawn Trustees and leaders of the programs could work toward a more inclusive and serviceable document. 

Concerns had been raised by both the Director of the BEDS Plus program which administers to the homeless in the area but also the many pastors who have developed the network of temporary shelters through the winter months to serve those who are homeless.  Ironically, the original intent to protect those most vulnerable during inclement weather  - that began nearly two decades ago after a request by the Village of Oak Lawn to prevent such misfortune  - seems to be facing a series of requirements which may hamstring or preclude its original mission to help the less fortunate. 

In the original proposed ordinance presented to the Oak Lawn Commission last Tuesday; a number of requirements were presented which in turn generated understandable pushback by the attending crowds.  Churches would need seek variances and approvals from the Board or City Manager for a multitude of restrictions: “inspect and maintain an approved fire alarm system in an operative condition at all times, in compliance with all village adopted codes including the international building code, 2012 edition, the international fire code, 2012 edition and the NFPA 72 – national fire alarm code, 2010 edition.”

Comment: Refitting half-century old churches that have operated without incident for over 20 years to effectively provide shelter for the homeless with sprinkler systems and radio alarms boxes is a financially punishing demand, one that many small churches may not be able to meet.

A vote is called for, and further discussion ended.  
Other requirements were just as daunting and unsettling: “Every licensee shall keep and maintain such records and make such reports to the Village Manager or his/her designee as may reasonably be required to implement this Chapter, including but not limited to a list of names of all persons who stay overnight at the shelter and the dates of the stay. Data from such reports and from applications on file within the Village shall be made available by the Village Manager…”

When queried by the Directors of the Homeless Programs as to whether such a code was legal or undercut any various privacy acts, the Village lawyer Kevin Casey suggested that such wording was only recommendations, not requirements.  One member of the commission wondered aloud why a recommendation would be codified. 

The next day, the Oak Lawn Patch published a review of the evening’s meeting and a series of FAQ’s written by the Administration’s representative(s) to counter the resistance from the previous evening.  Found within the document are a series of revisions and re-interpretations of the coding as simply recommendations: who shall be served, restrictions on sites’ placements, changes in earlier prohibitions on occupancy amounts, medical health related services and counseling changes, and others.

Other revisions took place even as the November 7th meeting convened.  The Village lawyer noted that original license approval dates would be changed from the middle of winter (January 1) to October, a result of being reminded by the homeless program’s directors that such a date could imperial many people during severe winter weather.  Mr. Casey did not say whether such a decision would also extend the grandfathered additional year for current temporary shelters to retro-fit and make necessary alterations to align with the proposed ordinance.  In the Patch, Casey called his original date of January 1st his faux pas; on the other hand, if his change of heart and date include all shelters, current and those coming on line, the timeline for readiness for current operating shelter/churches is shortened by almost four months. 

While the Zoning and Development Commission’s task was to review questions regarding the specific detail within the proposed document, most of the speakers in the audience spoke against the intent of the ordinance.  Most also asked that the ordinance be tabled and sent back to the Board of Trustees in order that a more cooperative and sensible approach be developed through a collaboration between the Board of Trustees, church leaders, homeless program leaders, volunteers and the homeless be assured. 

During the exchange between the considerable audience and the Commission’ members, a number of underlying and undressed disparagements percolated up through the interactions.

Commissioner(s): “Why do we (in Oak Lawn) have so many homeless sites?  Why do we have to have so many?  Why can’t other places like Evergreen Park or Orland have some of them?” 

You can provide the sub-texts.  Providing for the homeless is an organic and evolving ministry.  Over the many years, various churches have volunteered to aid the less-than-fortunate and homeless, many with food pantries and some as far as providing shelter.  The churches come and go, but many see this new ordinance as a draconian restriction, which may prevent the admission of newer churches as others become unavailable. 

Looking over nearly 12 years of work with this mission, I have seen hundreds of people placed into housing and finding balance again.  I have also seen thousands of people and children who have watched over each other and toiled on to find work and good health once again. 

Later, in the evening, the Chief of Police, Randy Palmer, described with anxiety the great weight the homeless in the community place upon him and his officers.  “they defecate in alleys, and they run with bloody hands through yards…”  
After Palmer’s recitation of evils, one volunteer took the podium to respond: “I’ve worked shelters for a decade, and I have never felt so safe and helpful.  This is an attempt to capitalize on fear, nothing less… Shame on you.”

Another attendee reminded the Chief that his several anecdotes were a reminder of “those mentally ill that receive little or no treatment in our area.”  It was not a description of many clients we all knew. 

Nearly 100% of the people in the room asked the Board to table the planned ordinance, but the members voted to adopt it, saying or nodding in agreement that “no document is ever perfect, just look at the Declaration of Independence. We’ll let the Board of Trustees decide…” 

Meanwhile behind the scenes, one Village Official continues to display an unequivocal dislike for the program and its population while denying any direct attempt to harass or annoy the program to help the destitute in the area: demanding that representatives from the homeless program pick up glass in the area, clean up bathrooms in public areas, disallow individuals from using public places, stampede the helpless out of public libraries.  He often sends pictures of various places and sites where he believes the vagrants have done evil deeds. 

He says: “Send ‘em back to the Windy City.”   

The next meeting of the Board of Trustees of Oak Lawn is scheduled for November 14th at 7 p.m. at the Oak Lawn Administration Building, 9446 S Raymond Ave. in Oak Lawn.  The Board of Trustees is scheduled to present a revision of their earlier proposed Ordinance, take suggestions from the audience and then decide to vote.  Will they collaborate with the various churches and providers?  Will they endorse an “imperfect document “again? 

Remember always that the least of us has the least of what we all have: health, safety, employment, access to physical and mental care, food, security, clothing, home, freedom.  Collaboration and cooperative discussion with the personnel who work with this very fragile population would make a tremendous difference in their survival.  To simply force new and restrictive parameters of existence in the name of safety will not help in the greater mission of moving them to once again productive lives. 

You may contact the Board Trustees of Oak Lawn below:

Contact information for the Oak Lawn Trustees:
Dist. #1 – Tim Desmond

Dist. #2 – Alex Olejniczak
Dist. #3 – Robert Streit
Dist. #4 – Terry Vorderer
Dist. #5 – William “Bud” Stalker
Dist. #6 – Thomas Phelan
Village President -  Dr. Sandra Bury
Village Manager – Larry Deetjen

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