A man from a suburb of Chicago who opened his basement to homeless people on freezing nights last month has complied with a local government order to stop.
“These people are my friends,” the man, Greg Schiller, who has worked with the homeless community in Elgin, Ill., for several years, said in an interview with AM 560 in Chicago on Friday. “This is basically the city telling me who I can have over, who my friends can be and where we can congregate in my home.”
He called the gatherings “movie nights” and said he had offered hot drinks and snacks. At most, 15 people stayed, he said, adding that he remained up all night to supervise the gathering.
But city officials on Friday said the arrangement was unlawful and a zoning and public safety issue, as well as a property maintenance issue.
Mr. Schiller’s property did not comply with codes and regulations, a city spokeswoman, Molly Center, said on Friday. It lacked adequate light and ventilation and there were insufficient exits in the event of a fire, she said.
Emergency shelters are not permitted in residences, Laura Valdez, the assistant city manager, said Friday. “He has a big heart, and it’s very admirable, but there are other shelters that are in place that are lawful,” she said. “And we have a relationship with them to provide a safe space.”
Jeff Rowes, a senior lawyer who focuses on private property rights and free speech at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, said he believed the city may have overstepped its bounds.
“Both Greg and the homeless people he helps have a constitutional right to be free of government interference that endangers their lives,” he said on Friday.
Mr. Rowes, who has been in contact with Mr. Schiller, said Mr. Schiller constitutionally may have a “right to rescue,” in that he has a right to offer lifesaving services to people in danger, and that he should not be subject to “irrational zoning.”
Blindly enforcing rules in a way that is divorced from real-time problems is unacceptable, Mr. Rowes said. “Abuse of zoning and code enforcement is a plague, particularly a plague on low-income people,” he said.
Mr. Schiller was opening his home only in emergency situations, Mr. Rowes said, adding, “He’s not trying to run a clandestine homeless shelter 24/7.”
Elgin, a city of about 110,000, has three lawful shelters, two of which work together to offer 24-hour service year-round.
Several warming centers become available during extreme cold and there is also an emergency shelter operated by the nonprofit Matthew 25:40. It only opens when the temperature drops to 15 degrees or lower, Tammy Wheatly, the shelter’s executive director, said Friday.
On the nights that Mr. Schiller opened his home, the temperatures were above 15 degrees but still below freezing.
“We have shelters, but they’re not always open,” Mr. Schiller told AM 560. “All I’m doing is trying to fill a gap in the wintertime.”
Mr. Schiller, the managing director of the Light in the Darkness Ministry, was a founding member of Matthew 25:40. He resigned in November 2016 amid conflict with the organization. “He had a my-way-or-the-highway attitude and refused to seek approval or input from the board,” Ms. Wheatly said.
Mr. Schiller did not respond to a call seeking comment on Friday.
Traditional shelters require those seeking housing to meet certain requirement, but they are not that stringent, said Sarah J. Ponitz, the executive director of PADS of Elgin, the overnight shelter that operates all year.
These individuals need some type of photo identification, but it doesn’t have to be state issued, she said. They also have to have some type of community connection to prove they are in the shelter’s service area. Almost no one is turned away, regardless of substance abuse or mental health issues, Ms. Ponitz said.
Ms. Ponitz said there were many reasons, some complex, as to why homeless people might opt to go to a private home instead of a lawful shelter. Some don’t feel that they need help, she said, and some want to drink or use drugs, which are not permitted in shelters.
PADS is rarely at capacity, Ms. Ponitz said. “It’s unfair to say there’s nowhere else to go,” she said.
This is not the first time Mr. Schiller has been ordered to close a makeshift shelter at his home. He opened his garage to homeless people last winter, he told AM 560. He set up propane heaters and cracked open the garage door, but had to call emergency services after one man with a heart condition fell ill. Emergency medical technicians reported him for violating zoning code, he said.
The city was tipped off to the recent situation by an anonymous complaint, Ms. Valdez said. Mr. Schiller said it wasn’t filed by his neighbors, who he said supported his efforts.
“We believe that the complaint came from someone who has a personal ax to grind with me that doesn’t live near here,” he said.
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