Many of the more than 30 people gathered at Fonda Cantina for a First Ward meeting on public safety Thursday afternoon had the same thing on their minds: what the city could do about their shared perception of increased crime and homelessness in the downtown area.

With gun incidents, shootings, reported thefts and batteries trending up recently, Evanston Police Department Commander Ryan Glew admitted that the city is seeing a more “active” period of public safety issues. But he also stressed that Evanston has seen times of more frequent muggings, burglaries and the like during various periods over the past 20 years and figured out ways to address the root causes effectively.

“This is not the first time that the Evanston Police Department and the city have grappled with a quality of life crime issue in downtown,” he said. Some 20-plus years ago, ”there was an issue with ‘wildings,’ basically people getting mugged,” Glew said. “If there’s some peace of mind you can take away from this conversation, it’s not the first time the department has had to handle an issue of this magnitude when it relates to downtown. It does take time. One difference is we are facing a staffing issue that we didn’t have before, but patience, reporting things as you see it, the more information we have, the more successful we can be.”

EPD Community Policing Unit Officer Brian Rust makes a point to residents at Fonda Cantina on May 4 while First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly (left) listens. Credit: Duncan Agnew

A large part of Thursday’s meeting revolved around safety and security concerns that residents have with the Evanston Public Library on Orrington Avenue downtown, where a woman threatened two others with a knife on Monday, May 1. Several people talked about issues they have experienced there with unhoused people sleeping, bathing, playing loud music or getting into disruptive arguments at the library.

Skipping the library

“I think it’s known that libraries do attract people that are identifying as homeless, but I think a lot of us patrons have become uncomfortable with being basically shamed because we’re concerned about the lack of social norms with some of these people,” said resident Joe Rocheleau. “We all live up to social norms and behaviors in public, and I think it goes so far that I know many people who have told me they no longer go to the library, and it’s a beautiful library.”

Rocheleau and several others expressed a desire for the library to set stricter behavioral expectations for patrons when it comes to what is deemed acceptable. But the library conversation also illuminated a broader issue with what residents saw as increased homelessness in Evanston, partly brought on by the number of shelters and nonprofit social service organizations headquartered here.

First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly and Joey Rodger, an EPD chaplain and former board member with Interfaith Action, said the crisis of housing insecurity in Evanston is solvable by using models that other communities have successfully employed. Rodger mentioned the New York-based organization Community Solutions, saying it has created a strategy for addressing homelessness by keeping a database of all people experiencing homelessness in a city at any given time and efficiently connecting those people with the resources they need.

Denver success

Kelly also advocated for more outreach workers in public areas of the city, who can identify dangerous situations and respond more quickly when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, for example. Denver recently launched a full-scale program along those lines called Support Team Assisted Response (STAR), where a health clinician and a paramedic respond to 911 calls that do not involve an injury, a weapon or threat of violence.

From Jan. 1 to July 1, 2022, the Denver STAR team responded to nearly 3,000 distress calls, the majority of which required a “welfare check,” and not once did the team call police for backup because of safety concerns, according to a 2022 mid-year report.

“What we don’t want to do is become the city that normalizes [crime and homelessness] and tells everybody to accept it. We need to figure out how to address it, whether it’s confronting it, or whether it’s outreach workers in the street who develop relationships with people,” Kelly said. “I think that’s what a lot of people feel, that there’s an effort to almost normalize behavior that shouldn’t be normalized. We have to address it.”

ETHS students may help

Kelly told the RoundTable after the meeting Thursday that she’s putting together a plan where graduating seniors from Evanston Township High School with lived experiences of housing insecurity would be paid to get training and become outreach workers in the downtown area every day.

And, for Rodger, the solution really centers on availability of spaces like public restrooms and city-operated centers where people can bathe, wash their clothes, change, get a meal and access the internet during the day. Congregate shelters often have to kick people out early in the morning, which is why there’s a need for places where people can go, store their things and get warm in the daytime, she said.

“If people had another place to go during the day, they wouldn’t go to the library. Interfaith Action is committed to taking care of immediate needs, with Connections [for the Homeless] being the people who take care of outreach, health care, finding homes and caseworkers,” Rodger said. “But what we need is an immediate care space in the city, where anybody can come and get a meal, a safe place to just hang out during the day, because if you’ve been homeless the night before, what you want to do is sleep, and know that you’re safe, that your stuff isn’t going to be stolen. If a place like Rockford can do it, why can’t we?”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. My experience with “homeless”, both here and in San Francisco agrees with Jay’s points. All kinds of people ready to take a hand out are attracted to free services. A large portion seem to lack any interest in expending their own effort. At a guess, maybe half may make an honest effort.

    Many politically correct people say the needy can all be led to salvation, or something. Implying we have the authority (from whom?) and the ability and resources to manufacture this very deep basic change in other people. I submit that is utter arrogance and, more importantly, it’s functionally incorrect – we’re not capable of enforcing our version of perfectness and virtue with our available resources.

    That is NOT to say that a community should not look after its members. What we shouldn’t do is pretend that there is a not fail rate and or that there is a portion of people who have no effective interest, at all, ever, in bringing themselves into line and contributing to the welfare of our communities as we have understand it.

    These latter actively damage the health and welfare of where ever they congregate and greatly hamper the efforts of those who do try to get a hold, move on and join and contribute. They need to fail out of the system at an early stage.

    Cruel? No. More like honest, I think.

  2. If you build it they will come. Evanston, for some crazy reason, is building a paradise for vagrants.

    And please folks, can we also stop calling them homeless? Some of them are in need, and we should help them bridge a life crisis, but most of them are con men, drug users, alcohol abusers, and people with a range of mental disorders.

    — Jay Garrick, Evanston third ward resident

  3. Quote from above: “And, for Rodger, the solution really centers on availability of spaces like public restrooms and city-operated centers where people can bathe, wash their clothes, change, get a meal and access the internet during the day…”

    The “solution” is here, as Connections *already* provides such a facility – with these services and more – at centrally – located Hilda’s Place (in Lake Street Church); Connections recently received a two – million dollar grant to expand services at Hilda’s. Connections has another drop – in facility at 2121 Dewey Avenue offering these services…

    Joey Rodger then cites the below website: “If a place like Rockford can do it, why can’t we?”

    “In order to create impactful change in the homelessness system, Rockford adopted a multi-agency approach that brought together efforts across health care, fire and emergency services, Code Enforcement, and even education…”

    The difficulty with Connections (and Interfaith) is that IMO they are chary to cooperate – let alone “collaborate” – with other city agencies, especially the EPD. Citing their “Homeless Bill of Rights”, they disdain law enforcement/911 contact, unless it’s an acute emergency. As a former Connections employee who worked out of the Margarita Inn, this is their SOP; it was part of my new employee onboarding…

    Frankly (and especially concerning the Margarita Inn contretemps, which my neighbors and I have been involved in) I do not view either Connections or Interfaith as “part of the solution”, but as “part of the problem”. Connections eagerly draws homeless to Evanston in order to gain ever – more funding. For example, Connections hands out hundreds of bus passes per month to primarily out – of – towners so they can visit Evanston, ostensibly for “services” – I know because I gave out quite a few myself when I worked at Connections…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

  4. I didn’t see mention of the recent knifing at the library. What are the details? Was the victim taken to a hospital? Was there a death? Was anyone apprehended? What transpired?

    1. What you mean what transpired, what ever, you don’t use knife.., I go to wilmett library tired of all political B.S., wish could totally avoid evanston