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Old Firehouse Assistance Center in Woodstock under scrutiny

WOODSTOCK – The city of Woodstock’s homeless population and service center have come under sharp scrutiny over the past few months after a perceived rise in inappropriate activity around Woodstock.

The city, police department and leaders of the Old Firehouse Assistance Center – a service provider for homeless individuals – have held multiple meetings with concerned residents on the matter.

Residents have said they are worried about problematic behavior such as disorderly conduct, panhandling and public indecency. Much of the blame has been placed on the Old Firehouse Assistance Center, which opened in an unused city-owned building last year.

The start

The reason the homeless population has been more visible in recent months and during the summer is multifaceted. Woodstock passed recent ordinances that put a limit on things such as how long people can sit on the Square. There also has been a crackdown on illegal camping, which drove some people out of encampments and into the public eye, said Sue Rose, the McHenry County Housing Authority’s community service director.

The county’s homeless also face a lack of shelter services in the summer.

McHenry County’s homeless shelters operated by the Pioneer Center for Human Services shut down for the season April 30, and they don’t open again until October. The organization gives people who are homeless camping supplies, and individuals are left to their own resources when it comes to shelter during the summer, despite a lack of legal camping grounds in McHenry County, Rose said.

“There is really no place for people to go,” she said. “[Woodstock] is the county seat, and all the services are here. … Everything that anyone who is homeless needs is here, and they don’t have to worry about transportation to get there.”

In the summer, as individuals were driven out of encampments and off the Square, some people began staying outside the assistance center – located two block off the Square by City Hall – when it was closed. Churches and other individuals dropped off things such as dinner or coffee at the site after hours.

“From Day 1 we have had a policy that people can’t be here when we aren’t here to manage it,” Rose said. “When we are closed, we aren’t here to manage things. … Just exactly what I thought was going to happen, happened. Behavior wasn’t acceptable when we were closed. People in the community started complaining.”

When assistance center officials and Woodstock police stepped in to enforce the after-hours policy, the problems decreased. The problems had stemmed from a small group of people, many of whom hadn’t used the center’s services, Rose said.

“By then, the damage was done,” she said. “It kind of sullied our reputation in the community.”

The center

The Old Firehouse Assistance Center, 120 W. South St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it offers services such as medical care, haircuts, meals, showers and daytime shelter with recreational resources such as movies, books and art supplies.

On-site service workers provide mental health and substance abuse screenings as well as connect guests to treatment. Social service providers – including medical professionals, social workers and individuals who can help enroll people in food and housing benefits – visit the site weekly to help people work toward resolving their problems.

The center serves dozens of guests daily and has moved about 42 people out of homelessness since it opened Jan. 20, 2016. The site provides continuing support services to its clients after they are housed.

Rose opened the site in response to the mayor’s 2015 request for a service provider to step in and address the issue of homelessness in Woodstock. The McHenry County Housing Authority leases the building from the city for free on a two-year basis.

Moving forward

People without homes have existed for decades, and the issue isn’t confined to certain municipalities. Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager said he would like to see agencies work together to face the issue.

“This is kind of one of those things that is put off to the side,” he said. “It’s not one of those trendy issues. … In today’s situation, it’s becoming a greater need and a greater challenge.”

City officials said they are trying to address business owner and residents’ concern while balancing human rights concerns.

“It’s not legal to criminalize the status of being homeless,” Woodstock City Attorney Ruth Schlossberg said. “We have to be very careful with civil rights when you are dealing with these issues.”

She said the city has more clout in court when dealing with legal battles because the assistance center is in Woodstock.

“We are trying to make sure these people have somewhere to go,” Schlossberg said. “You can’t tell them they can’t exist on the street. … While the city hasn’t been able to provide housing for all of them, we have made an effort to address the needs of the community in an effort to make sure our legal efforts aren’t civil rights violations.”

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