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Homeless population could lose option of sleeping in public places in Peoria, Pekin following Supreme Court ruling

A group of tents form a homeless encampment in a wooded area near the Illinois River in Pekin.
Joe Deacon
A group of tents form a homeless encampment in a wooded area near the Illinois River in Pekin.

Most Peoria-area communities do not currently have city ordinances in place similar to those enacted by a rural Oregon city that gained the national spotlight with its crackdown on homelessness.

However, they may consider it now.

In June, the Supreme Court took up a case examining the punishments doled out by Grants Pass, Ore., for people sleeping outside with nowhere else to go. In a 6-3 decision, the court upheld the ordinance and overturned previous rulings that characterized the municipal codes and fines as "cruel and unusual."

Kate Green is the executive director of Peoria's Home for All Continuum of Care, part of the Heart of Illinois United Way. While she calls the ability to penalize people for sleeping outside "unfathomable," she's hopeful area communities will be thoughtful about how, and if, they apply the ruling locally.

“I’m hopeful that what we’ll see roll out, certainly across our service area, but many parts of the country, is not necessarily leaning into that ability to criminalize. But instead, really look at root causes of homelessness and figure out how we can come together to address it,” Green said.

In a statement, Pekin City Manager John Dossey told WCBU the city recently hired a social worker to assist unhoused people, and is making efforts to not implement new ordinances without a plan to also assist those impacted.

“We have to consider actions to ensure the safety of the public and clean up the current conditions, but do so with a plan in place that provides them with assistance and keeps their individual rights in mind,” Dossey said.

Read more: Taking a first-hand look at Pekin’s latest response to homelessness

Green said she expects these decisions will have a significant impact on the operations of organizations like hers. Initially, she says, the numbers of unsheltered homeless people in the community could trend downward, but that would be because more people are getting fines and jail time on their records.

“What we find, when we’re working day-in and day-out with individuals experiencing homelessness who already have those kinds of things on their records, it’s just ten times harder to house them, unfortunately,” Green said. “And so, what we think we’ll see over time is actually it exacerbates the problem.”

Some see the penalties as a potential motivator to move unhoused people toward community resources.

Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich told WCBU in a statement that Peoria doesn't have a similar ordinance currently, but they would also consider one.

“In light of the decision and the resources this community does have for people experiencing homelessness, we will be looking at what regulations we can implement to ensure people are housed safely and not living on the streets,” wrote Urich.

But Chris Schaffner, executive director of Jolt Harm Reduction, takes issue with the characterization of ordinances as encouragement to access community resources. He calls them "high barrier resources" and provides an example.

“So you have somebody with unmitigated mental health symptoms, maybe that’s the reason they’re still on the streets,” Schaffner said. “Well, if you’ve ever tried to navigate our health care center and system here in Central Illinois, it’s a nightmare. So getting somebody to a point where they can sustain a living space on their own, is nearly impossible for many of our folks.”

Even if they can get stable housing, Schaffner argues, there's issues accessing psychiatrists and medication. If they have substance abuse issues, there's long wait lists for treatment.

“If you’ve got a long gap in history because you’ve been on the streets, in your work history, good luck finding viable employment in which you can afford to not only save money for a first month’s deposit and rent, let alone sustain housing,” he said.

For Schaffner's organization, he says any new codes will leave the way they operate largely unchanged.

“We’re going to provide basic needs, whether it’s food, tents, sleeping bags, weather appropriate clothing,” Schaffner said. “We’re going to do that regardless of what the law says.”

For East Peoria's part, Mayor John Kahl says the ruling validates ordinances the city already has in place. Nothing will change, he says. The city will continue to prohibit the types of encampments that go up in surrounding communities.

“We move them along and we will continue to do that,” he said in a voicemail left with WCBU.

Green says she does not see the Supreme Court's ruling as the definitive end of the issue moving forward.

“I think that, certainly, there will be movement from civil rights activists. That there’s going to be more legal challenges to this concept of criminalizing people who are partaking in basic human needs,” she said. “So I think that, while there’s a lot of uncertainty in the waters now, that’s going to continue while we try to navigate what this is going to mean for communities.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.