City officials say amendment is tied to homelessness issue
A new amendment to Woodstock’s City Code could be used to regulate the activities of people who are homeless and others who use public amenities such as benches or picnic tables for extended periods of time.
The ordinance, approved by the City Council Oct. 17, applies existing rules at city parks to other public grounds and sets a time limit for their use.
“This is tied to the [homelessness] discussion which is occurring,” City Councilman Mike Turner said. “… This is an extension of something called the park management policy. This policy was specifically put in place, originally in the downtown Square itself, for the purpose of managing use and behavior.”
Under the city’s park management policy, people who are found to have violated the rules — by, for instance, drinking alcohol or smoking in a city park — may be banned from the grounds for a length of time which increases with each offense. People found to have violated a ban could be arrested for trespassing.
This system of penalties, which includes a provision for accused people to be heard in the city’s administrative system, goes beyond citations and fines. Now, that policy extends from parks to other public areas, including benches and parking lots.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have with inappropriate behavior is we generally are able to only issue citations,” City Manager Roscoe Stelford said. “Those can be ineffective when the recourse is a fine and the person doesn’t have the means.”
In addition to expanding the park management policy to other areas, the council also approved a provision prohibiting people from using the same public grounds for more than four hours in a 24-hour period.
The use of public property by people who are homeless has been a topic of conversation among council members. During the same meeting at which the amendment was approved, city officials said they were concerned over problems, such as public drunkenness in the downtown area, which they said were caused by guests of the Old Firehouse Assistance Center. The city-owned building on South Street is used by the McHenry County Housing Authority to provide homeless assistance services.
Stelford said the change to city policy is likely to help alleviate some issues downtown, but cautioned it won’t eliminate them everywhere.
“There’s definitely going to be some challenges, and something I always mention to residents and council is the issue of displacement,” Stelford said. “It may move them off the bench, but where are they going to move next? Because it doesn’t fix the underlying problem.”