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Evanston City Council members approved Sept. 12 an allocation of $508,000 in federal COVID recovery funds to a Brooklyn-based company to provide elevated cleaning and maintenance to the city’s downtown and other business areas.

The board balked, however, at a move by several council members to add a social service component to the contract with Streetplus Company.

In committee, Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward) had proposed the city allocate an additional $125,000 to the company to provide social services along with the cleaning and maintenance services, as the company has done in arrangements in some other cities.

“We all know there has been an increase in homelessness and aggressive panhandling everywhere across the area, which in and of itself is not an issue,” said Burns, speaking at the Administration and Public Works Committee meeting held before the full City Council meeting. “The issue is that we have not responded in the way that we need to as the city to help make contact with individuals and to get them the support that they need.”

He argued that “there is an immediate need in light of the post-COVID increase in need from our homeless population for additional staff downtown that can interact with our homeless population and direct them to services.”

Adding the service to Streetplus’s contract, he said, “just allows us to bypass, in my opinion, unnecessary bureaucracy.”

Council members: Vetting needed for social services

Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) noted that City Council members are due to receive a report from Trilogy Behavioral Healthcare at their next meeting and an update on that agency’s mobile crisis response team work with homeless people who are in a crisis mode.

With money mostly from a state grant, the Trilogy team had started in June responding to people in crisis.

“But I do think what we’re talking about in terms of what’s needed downtown is quite different,” she argued. “We’re talking about the explosion of panhandlers, some of whom are homeless, and many of whom are not.”

Her proposal, which Burns supported, called for the city to allocate $75,000 to bring in someone to head up a program, working with the various agencies that serve the homeless.

But some of the council members who voted against moving forward on the proposal said they were in support of the need for social services but questioned tacking on that issue to the cleaning and maintenance contract on the night’s agenda.

Council Member Clare Kelly, whose 1st Ward includes a portion of the downtown district, said she is looking forward to hear from Trilogy. She said she is also meeting with directors of Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response program “to get a better understanding of how that very successful program has been working.”

“I really think this is acting a little too impetuously,” she said of the push for action.
“These are human beings. This isn’t sweeping the streets,” she said.

Council member Devon Reid (8th Ward) argued that moving forward with a program now will allow the city to begin to make “a dent” in the problem.

“Even if it’s a small dent, we’ll be able to get some people on the ground, working with this population, prioritizing the needs of folks who are homeless and forced to beg on our streets,” he said.

Further, he said, “I think this is a full commitment to creating a safe, clean downtown.” Otherwise, he maintained, “we’re just going to say we’re going to paper over what’s going on downtown by cleaning up the trash here and there without actually dealing with the human beings.”

Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) who had chaired the discussion at the committee meeting, said that he was in full support of having trained social workers on the street.

“That’s critical,” he said. “I would like to move there.”

But he told Council members, “I don’t support doing that by increasing this contract, because we have not vetted the supplier for that service. To approve that money without having a look at exactly what we want and and looking at what other ways we might be able to achieve that role, it’s just not appropriate.”

Streetplus, he noted, “happens to offer that service and they may very well in the end be the right answer. But we have not done the homework to be able to answer that question.”

He said he would like to move forward with the program, but didn’t “want to take the first thing available and then realize in a month and half, ‘We should have done this a different way.’”

Council members voted 5-3 against moving forward with the $75,000 additional allocation proposed by Revelle. Revelle, Burns and Reid cast dissenting votes. The Council then voted 8-0 to approve the $508,000 contract with Streetplus for the 2022-23 project.

Official: COVID staffing problems have led to issues

In a memo to the City Council supporting the hiring of Streetplus, Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, said Evanston districts “are visibly dirtier and suffering from deferred maintenance including overflowing trash cans, graffiti, stickers, taped signage on poles, rat burrows in landscaped beds, abandoned bicycles at bike racks, dying and/or overgrown vegetation, etc. The collective experience and appearance of our business districts is increasingly unwelcoming. City staff does as much as it can to maintain the entire community. This has become increasingly difficult
with reduced staff resulting from the impacts of COVID-19.”

Zalmezak said a contract “with a devoted business district clean team puts a devoted team on the streets daily to keep up with these challenges. The clean team will also be trained to report to 311 maintenance issues that are beyond their scope such as tree trimming, broken lights, parking meter boxes, loose sidewalk pavers and rodent burrows.”

Further, he said the contract will allow the Downtown Evanston Special Service Area organization, which has played a key role in marketing downtown, to focus on that service.

“Downtown Evanston estimates that $100,000 of their annual budget is committed to maintenance,” he said.

In the meantime, Zalmezak wrote, “Fountain Square has not been maintained at the level required of this popular destination. It opened without the funding level required to maintain it. Many of the tables have been destroyed by skateboarders, some have deteriorated from excessive use, many are covered with food residue from outdoor diners. The clean team will maintain Fountain Square,” Zalmezak said.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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