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Woodstock City Council votes to keep Old Firehouse Assistance Center open

Members approve 1-year extension on facility’s lease

The city’s controversial homeless assistance center will be allowed to stay at its downtown location for at least the next year.

Woodstock City Council members approved a one-year extension on a lease for the Old Firehouse Assistance Center, 120 W. South St., on Tuesday. The site opened in January 2016, and its lease was set to expire May 31.

The renewed lease includes an automatic eight-month extension if a permanent, fixed-site shelter isn’t operational in a year.

The Old Firehouse Assistance Center offers services in a one-stop shop format for McHenry County individuals who are experiencing homelessness. The McHenry County Housing Authority manages the site and offers meals, haircuts, showers, daytime shelter, counseling and medical services to its clients.

It has served hundreds of individuals and moved more than 50 people out of homelessness and into permanent housing since it opened. It now can continue services in Woodstock through May 31, 2019.

The center doesn’t pay the city rent for the space, and the lease provides options for both renewal and a 90-day get-out clause if the building is needed, according to city documents. Under the terms of the lease, the center is responsible for any cost related to court fees or damages to the site.

The shelter is open from 9 a.m. to
3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Residents in the area have criticized the center. Public scrutiny launched a series of city-hosted meetings on the issue of homelessness over the past year.

Meeting attendees Tuesday spoke for almost three hours and said the center is in the wrong location, drives economic development out of the city, devalues property, increases crime and draws more homeless people to Woodstock.

But some said the center has its merits. Resident Lauretta Wolf said that she sympathizes with the position the city is in and appreciates the work officials are doing to effect change.

“One of the things that makes me proud to be a Woodstock resident is the fact that people up here are taking the horns of this question and this mess,” Wolf said. “Being homeless doesn’t make you bad. Being addicted doesn’t make you bad. … I spend a lot of time in the library, and yes, there are some challenges with the people that come into the library, but you know what? The library is a sanctuary, and I think that is awesome.”

The city and local social service providers such as Pioneer Center for Human Services, Community Foundation for McHenry County and the housing authority are working toward expanding services for people experiencing homelessness.

The goal is to expand Pioneer Center’s Kishwaukee Valley Road site to provide emergency shelter for 70 to 80 clients and move away from the current church-based shelters.

Officials are working toward the expansion, but construction isn’t anticipated to start until next year.

Once the site is complete, social service agencies will move to the new facility and services at the Old Firehouse Assistance Center will end, according to city documents.

The nonprofit currently operates a 32-bed emergency shelter in Woodstock. Conversations are ongoing with city, county and state officials on funding a proposed expansion. All City Council members said they see that people are concerned with the problems of the shelter, but they acknowledged the time it takes to address an issue such as homelessness.

“This is not an ideal situation,” council member Mike Turner said. “We can’t snap our fingers and it gets better, even if we cancel this lease. I am not happy with the vote either way. I am all ears as to how to solve this issue.”

Council member Dan Hart voiced the only “no” vote on the extension.

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