Oak Lawn considers proposed homeless shelter regulations

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

A proposed ordinance regulating temporary homeless shelters that the Oak Lawn Village Board will be considering at its next meeting on Nov. 14 is worrying many of the people who run them, mainly in local churches.

Six churches in Oak Lawn, along with three in Palos Hills and one each in Chicago Ridge and Worth, house shelters for homeless people on alternating nights between October and May, as part of a system founded in 1997. They now coordinate with BEDS Plus, a non-profit social service agency that stands for Building Ecumenical Discipleship through Sheltering. Based in LaGrange, it also offers counseling service.

“The proposed ordinance might be well-intentioned, but we’re afraid it will cause a lot more problems,” said Pastor Peg McClanahan, whose Pilgrim Faith United Church of Christ at 9411 S. 51st Ave. hosts a shelter for the homeless on Thursday nights.

She was a founding member of the original homeless shelter program in Oak Lawn, which was started after a homeless person died outside in 1997. Volunteers prepare meals for the clients, and provide them with a bag lunch each morning that they can take with them.

Among other things, the proposed ordinance, which the Oak Lawn Plan Commission approved at its meeting on Monday, would require that shelters have automated fire alarms and sprinkler systems. Although the existing shelters would be “grandfathered in,” all new shelters would also have to get special use permits from the village, and McClanahan said that might be a problem if a new shelter is needed to replace an existing one. All the shelters would also have to get annual license renewals.

But the pastor said other regulations, such as giving preference to Oak Lawn residents, giving a list of shelter users to village officials, and not being able to operate one within 500 feet of a school, might be a problem because many are in buildings attached to schools.

“I am not sure why that would be needed because they are not in operation during school hours,” said McClanahan, noting that the shelters are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit any medical care done on the premises, which would prevent nurses from giving flu shots.

“We’re thankful that village officials did change some things from the original version after meeting with us, and I hope there is still more discussion and changes made,” said Tina Rounds, executive director of BEDS.

“We continue to have concern about many items in the ordinance that present barriers to our churches’ continued ministry with the homeless in our community,” said McClanahan.

“It’s being painted as some draconian measure. But it is not,” said Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury. “No local shelter will be closed because of it.”

The mayor said the board will have the opportunity to make further changes to the proposed ordinance before also passing it.

She said officials are aware of the costs of the fire alarm systems, and churches will be given time to come into compliance, with what she said is state law now.

Bury also said that renewing the license annually should be a simple process,

“The shelter system is a safety net, an important net. I believe it is a lifesaving thing,” she said. “But the shelters are only open for 12 hours, and for six months out of the year. So we have to have discussions about solving the homeless problem. Anyone who wants to talk to me about that is welcome to do so.”