SPRINGFIELD — A divided Springfield City Council on Tuesday rejected a proposal that would have closed Lincoln Library grounds after hours.
The ordinance, which was proposed by Mayor Jim Langfelder, was drafted after the library had seen an uptick in the homeless population who have been sleeping under the brick overhangs. The ordinance would have allowed Springfield police officers to ask those on the grounds from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. to move along or face a ticket or possible arrest, if there was disorderly conduct. Homeless people would still be welcome during the day.
At the committee meeting, aldermen were divided on whether the ordinance was the right solution.
The library sits within Ward 5, which is represented by Ald. Andrew Proctor. He, as well as his wife, Heather Proctor, an advocate for the homeless, spoke against the ordinance.
"I oppose this ordinance because I don't think it will be effective," Andrew Proctor said. "I don't think there is a long-term plan for the homeless issue that we have in Springfield, and I think it's wrong to tell people to leave a place they've decided is safe without telling them an alternative."
Proctor's dissenting vote was joined by those of Ward 2 Ald. Herman Senor, Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner, Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso and Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan.
DiCenso said she would support the ordinance if there were a plan in place to address helping the homeless outside of the library. She called the ordinance a "Band-Aid."
"To suggest ticketing homeless people is ludicrous," DiCenso said. "We are criminalizing poverty, and I personally find that repulsive."
Turner said she didn't want to isolate one building and would rather have a long-term solution to homelessness.
"It seems to me that all you're doing is just moving people a few feet to the north," Turner said, adding the municipal complex next door was open.
Ten years ago, the library saw a surge in the homeless population outside of its doors and then-Mayor Tim Davlin chose to close the municipal area complex, said Donelan, who was Davlin's chief of staff. Donelan voted against the ordinance because he believed the ability to close the library grounds was within the mayor's purview and not the responsibility of the council.
Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath, Ward 4 Ald. John Fulgenzi, Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen and Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer voted to move the ordinance forward to be discussed during the next city council meeting, where it could get final approval. Some compared it to how the city closes the parks overnight.
Both McMenamin and Redpath said most of their constituents wanted to see the ordinance pass.
"We do have a homeless problem, and the mayor is starting some place," Redpath said. "This is the best place to start. We need to clean this thing up. It's a black eye on the city of Springfield to leave it the way it is."
Erica Smith, Helping Hands executive director, said there are still beds available in the shelter. She spoke in favor of the ordinance but pushed the aldermen to continue to move toward long-term solutions like having an officer solely dedicated to homelessness outreach, have year-round shelter with services and have a detox center.
Several community members spoke on the ordinance and appealed to the city council members' compassion. One noted several of the homeless often are veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sheila Beebe, 64, of Springfield said her son suffers from an addiction and post-traumatic stress following a car accident in which his father was killed. He has spent a night outside of the library before.
"I can't stand the thought of making it so that he was breaking the law for just sleeping on a bench," Beebe said.
Lisa Clemmons Stott, the Downtown Springfield Inc. executive director, spoke against having a "standalone" ordinance. She said by doing so, aldermen didn't "dare to consider or to ask" the question: "Where will these people go?"
"So you are just pushing it off to the private businesses in the downtown area and to the social service agencies that are underfunded," Clemmons Stott said.
Even though the ordinance failed, Redpath urged the mayor to close the grounds anyway.
In an interview, Langfelder said he wouldn't use his executive authority to close the grounds. Instead, he hoped to continue discussing solutions with a small working group that includes overnight shelter Helping Hands employees and Office of Community Relations director Juan Huerta. He also said in his next budget proposal, he would have funds set aside to help bring along year-round, "holistic" shelter, though he said he didn't yet know what the price tag would be.
Both he and Huerta noted a shelter would need services like case management and mental health resources.
"If we open the building and people come high and drunk every day, that's not a solution," Huerta said. "... If you don't change what you do every day, you won't get a different result."
The overflow shelter is open for six months of the year overnight and costs the city about $32,000, funded from the Office of Planning and Economic Development and the Round-Up program, which allows City Water, Light and Power customers to donate to shelter by rounding up their bills. The shelter was full for most of the time it was open from November to April.
Langfelder said one of the "real" reasons the ordinance had to come forward was because of the state budget impasse.
"Everybody in this room should contact the state legislature because there's been cuts to mental health services, to the social service industry and when that happens, guess who's called upon? The city of Springfield," Langfelder said.
In an interview after the vote, library director Will O'Hearn said the library will continue to bring in social service agencies, health care providers and Springfield neighborhood police to provide resources for the homeless.