The city of Woodstock will use grant money to pay for a new bathroom in the Old Firehouse Assistance Center despite worries from officials over bad behavior near the property.
The center at 120 W. South St. provides services and assistance to people who are homeless. The building is owned by the city, and services there are provided by the McHenry County Housing Authority.
City Council members said in recent months, there has been an uptick in criminality and nuisances from the center’s guests, and that they had heard complaints about it from residents. Fights, public intoxication, public urination and littering near the center have been some of the problems, Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb said.
At a meeting Oct. 17, some council members questioned whether the city should dedicate more resources to the building — in this case, an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant bathroom paid for with a Community Development Block Grant.
“With the optics of what’s been occurring over the last month, to make an investment in this building at this time, for me, is problematic,” said Councilman Mike Turner, who was filling in as mayor pro tem in Mayor Brian Sager’s absence.
Sue Rose, community service director for the McHenry County Housing Authority, spearheaded the creation of the center, which opened in January 2016, shortly after city officials offered the use of the building for homeless assistance services. She described the center as a “one-stop shop” for the area’s homeless population — in addition to giving people a place to warm up, shower and grab a bite to eat, staff, volunteers and local agencies also offer medical care, job counseling, housing placement, haircuts and more.
Rose told the council she was concerned about problems caused by guests but said most of the issues arise when the center is closed. She said a new change to city policy banning people from loitering outside the center after hours is helping to alleviate some of the problems in the immediate area, and that a recent expansion of the center’s hours, from three days a week to five, should help as well.
“I agree with the city; some of the behavior was quite unacceptable,” Rose said after the meeting. “The city asked if they could start diverting people congregating around the perimeter of the Square to the front of the [center], and I was concerned about that because they would have been there while we weren’t open.”
“There’s a misconception that we are importing homeless people from other communities, and there is no truth to that whatsoever,” Rose continued. “The people we serve are already here. They have a tie to the community.”
Lieb said police had been called to the center many times in recent months but agreed the new no-loitering policy is helping.
“These are human beings, and we’re trying to help them. But at the same time, we’re trying to manage inappropriate behavior. All we’re asking is for mutual respect. Help us help you,” Lieb said. “When that policy went back into effect saying they can’t be here when it’s closed, for the most part, they’ve moved along.”
In spite of their initial concerns, council members voted 6-0 to approve a contract with G. Fisher Commercial Construction to build a new bathroom at the Old Firehouse Assistance Center at a cost not to exceed $55,000. The city will be reimbursed for the expenses with a Community Development Block Grant.
“That space has not been updated and made compliant with codes for awhile, so getting an ADA bathroom in there is a significant positive for the city,” City Manager Roscoe Stelford said.