“How long has there been tent city in Prairie Park?” asked a supporter of Hope Haven after the City Council voted to receive and file the agency’s request for a zoning change for expansion of its homeless facility.
“There’s been one there for as far back as the 70s,” Gracie and I responded.Disbelief clouded the eyes of the return stare.
After the meeting we drove over to The Junction Eating Place. We ran into a DeKalb lifer. We started to tell him about people at the meeting, like 6th ward alderman Dave Baker, who just recently learned of the tent city.
“There’s been one back there since I was born,” he said. “And I’m 58.”
In all likelihood there has been a tent city, of sorts, in Hobo Park which begat Peoples Park which begat Hueber Park which begat Prairie Park since round about 1854 when the railroad was built through town.
The hobos were migrant workers chasing jobs or their dreams. A list of former hobos would include Louis L’Amour, the Western author; James Michener, author, world traveler, historian; Jack London, famous author and noted Socialist; Winthrop Rockefeller, wealthy industrialist, when he was a young man; Nels Anderson, author and songwriter; William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice; Clark Gable, actor; Dr. George Milburn, college professor and author; Melvin Belli, attorney; Vachel Lindsay, poet; George Orwell, author of “1984” and “Animal Farm”; and Steve McQueen, actor. They rode the trains from one job or dream to another.
The hobos were often accompanied or followed by a mixture of vagabonds and bums of those who worked hard at not working by begging, conning or stealing their way from worn out destinations and those who were simply down on their luck with no where else to go. The hobo jungles were always near jobs and DeKalb from its agricultural to barb wire to wire and cable to NIU history has always had jobs — and when there weren’t jobs — there were plenty of people down on their luck.
From a random blog found Googling “DeKalb, IL” and “hobo camp:”
While living in DeKalb, Illinois, I felt that the town as a whole was my home, but never felt at home in the places I lived. Possibly, this was due to the spirit of busy-bodies invading my space, but I can remember that species being present only when I was at the new Life Center, a kind of off-campus dormitory run by people who called themselves Christians. I felt best when sleeping in the park, “Peoples Park”, at the hobo camp of an ex-Marine machine-gunner named Robbie. Robbie lived on garbage – – many have commented on how nicely one can live off what this society discards – – and found drinking buddies often enough that he was usually drunk. I felt comfortable with Robbie sleeping nearby.
Prairie Park is one of Gracie’s favorite bike riding spots. She’s prone to taking a little extra food, toiletries, etc. with her because in recent times she was often running into couples with children tenting out in those woods.
I’ve never been real comfortable with her doing that because I’ve known some of the chronic bums that can be out there. But she listens intently to what I have to say and does what she wants anyways.
We were glad that Lisa Sharp and Lesly Wicks put together the presentation they did for last night’s city council meeting. The public was well served by hearing the facts, trends and strategies for coping with homelessness in DeKalb.
Because it is shocking to learn there are so many people out there without a roof over their head. And then it makes perfect sense why it is more economically feasible, and downright neighborly, to provide shelter… and hope.
The DeKalb City Council voted 3-3 (Gallagher, Baker and Kammes against; Simpson, Teresinski and Verbic for) to receive and file Hope Haven’s expansion proposal. Mayor Kris Povlsen broke the tie with a vote in favor of the proposal. The proposal now moves to a Second Reading.
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I think that tent cities are the worst ideas in the world because the land will be polluted and if a fire happens many people will die. That is why the cities should build a shelter home on the property of the tent cities.
I see 2002 King of the Hobos Red Bird Express at least twice a year, at the Lincoln Highway Association conference and his annual talk the third Tuesday in August at Chaplin Creek, Franklin Grove. Last year, three former Queen of the Hobos attended:
along with several other hobos in the audience.
In the past, there were hobos in the park in DeKalb because of its proximity to the railroad tracks but that culture is fading and the number of hobos is dwindling.
The homeless become homeless not by their choice. They are totally different than hobos. Hobos are not looked down upon, at least they should not. Red Bird Express explained the differences between hobos, bums, and the homeless last year but my video of that was of poor quality and I did not save it.
Hobos, bums, and the homeless are not the same. Mac's article gets it right about the people of the past. There are not too many hobos around today although they can be found in Britt, Iowa every summer. Here is an introduction to hobos:
I'm not happy with the way you refer to the homeless as "bums" or "hobos". They are human beings too and with the way the economy has turned, it's a shame they have to live in tents to begin with! Expand the homeless shelter or have the city purchase a home that might be in foreclosure to help all that are needed.
I'm glad that I don't have to see this sight any longer since I've moved away. What a shame that they are looked down on!!
I was just talking today with a friend about Prairie Park. It's a beautiful place to go with a group, but I only had to bike through it one time by myself to understand that the sight lines are horrible, just too many places for ambush.
Therefore I've always treated it as I would a forest preserve, or the wooded trails of Shabbona State Park, in which I've always enjoyed a good tromp. This means I go with company of some sort. I loved taking my German shepherd dogs on the trails because they eliminated the element of surprise and added a potential layer of inconvenience to thugs.
A friend who used to live on W. Roosevelt got mugged there a few years ago during a solo walk on a summer evening about 5 p.m. Other people were in the park but did not realize what was happening.
Mac is right on the money when he writes about how a number of the homeless have serious mental problems. When I was a TA in a computer lab here on campus some years back, one of the students interned at a local homeless shelter. He described a fair number of the patrons as being paranoid schizophrenics, "but they were pretty harmless so long as they took their medication." Yes, and who was insuring that they were doing that? Most of these unfortunates were originally housed in state mental institutions where the conditions may not have been the greatest, but at least there was some monitoring of their meds and their effects. But to save money, these facilities were closed, and the residents were tossed out onto the streets. This is a serious problem, and it is not being addressed at all competently by the state and localities.
I used to cross country ski through those woods when I lived on Gurler Street in the 1970's and early 1980's. I never saw anyone camped out there then, but it tended to be below zero, and not too hospitable for living outdoors. But, I have heard the stories, and I am not surprised. While I hesitate to suggest that the city spend money on things other than projects of politically connected folks, I think that several things need to be done in the interest of public safety. The first is that those woods in Prairie Park need to be cut down. It is a park, and not a forest preserve, and we need to eliminate a shield that conceals illegal activity, and reduces public safety. At Hopkins Park, the underbrush needs to be cut down so that the bike path is clearly visible for a great distance. That is also an insecure area. This is analogous to what we used to do in combat to eliminate places where ambushes were likely. A greater presence of police bicycle patrols in these parks would also be a great improvement. Removing the cover, and increasing law enforcement would go a long way towards making this city a safer place.
I agree with you Gracie about Baker's use of the "tent city" phrase for these transient folks. I also strongly believe that hope haven needs to expand. I also am concerned with the undercurrent tone that seems to be coming out that all homeless people are murderers. I too Ivan, question if the expansion is going to be large enough. All we have to do is look no further than the chronicle at the number of foreclosures each week. How many regular folks are a major medical crisis, house fire, paycheck, or job loss away from being homeless? I too echo Ivan's sentiments about using the old hospital space. What a great way to recycle a building and serve the community at once. My other concern that has been echoed by Barry Schrader is now the lack of resources in our area for our mentally ill folks who need inpatient treatment. They have to go to Elgin or I think Rockford in the burbs for treatment.
I think there are some obvious correlations between homelessness and crime.
First is survival. That's our most basic instinct I think. When it is challenged we can easily revert to our most animalistic behavior. I can envision circumstances where my principles might slide down the list especially if my children were exposed. Until placed in those circumstances who knows how anyone would react?
Next is mental health. Many of the homeless are challenged in this area and one of the great cracks in our society is the lack of treatment available. Rather than fix the problems and address the abuse institutions were closed and patients turned out to the streets and/or ill equipped family members. In a decisively one-sided relationship our jails and prisons have become the "institution" for many of the mentally ill. "We" benefit from having them removed from the streets and there's really no reason, once they are removed, to worry about what happens to them on the inside.
Addiction and the need to fulfill those urges is the most common enabler of the correlation between homelessness and crime.
And then there is opportunity. There are those who crave the power of controlling others through any means. They're total cowards in all things that raise the human race above animals. Life except for theirs means nothing. I suspect Toni's murderer came from this group and they may or may not be homeless.
The unsheltered homeless are exposed to all of the above. And Gracie's right that some were displaced with recent events. They went somewhere and that's likely in DeKalb.
One thing that needs changed and changed fast. Do a search of sex offenders in DeKalb (or any other town, actually). A sex offender cannot stay at Hope Haven (nor should they). There should be no "homeless" tag assigned to them.
Tent City, Shantytown or whatever must not be allowed to continue at Prairie Park or anywhere else. Unsheltered homeless are most at risk of all things terrible. We must face that reality.
What I struggle with regarding these two events – Toni Keller's murder and the Hope Haven's need to expand to help the homeless in Prairie Park is this – since when do homeless people murder/kill/burn an innocent college girl -are the homeless gett ing a bad rap here?? – if you had to guess who do you think murdered her??? is there always a direct correlation between homelessness and crime – I don't think that is the case but am open to hearing facts, ideas and figures on this – similar to what some of the comments that were made about rental properties in and around NIU – section 8 equals drug dealers and gangs – thus the crime element that exists in and around NIU and DeKalb – interested in the truth behind this as well – was never really aware of any other college town that had so many adults/families living in what I would consider to be student housing – ?? within the borders of a college campus – that has to put an added challenge and stress on NIU police to do their job – HMMM?
I am so stupid. I had no idea that homeless people were sleeping in Prairie Park or any other area. I am aware of Hope Haven and aware of its excellent reputation.
Mac, Gracie, how about contacting several of these agencies that help people and post a listing from each of what they can use besides money. With Thanksgiving, Christmas, and cold weather maybe we can make a little difference for them. Or, if you don't have the time, I can volunteer to do some calling.
I know these lists have been published in the past but we probably need constant reminders.
Besides these organized groups, where do the homless living in park go for any help?
I am so disappointed in every level of our government, reducing social services funds when they are needed more than ever.
Is the expansion at Hope Haven even large enough?
Too bad this community didn't take advantage of all the empty rooms that the now demolished old Kishwaukee Hospital. That was one of the biggest wastes of a community asset. That building could have helped many at a time like we are experiencing now with this economy.
I've noticed for several months now people sleeping on benches at night. Newspaper for blankets. All the years I grew up in this community that was never something you saw on a regular basis. Many today do not even realize how many of their neighbors are in trouble with lost jobs, homes being foreclosed, cars being repo'd and many barely bave enough for the necessities today like food and utilities let alone health insurance.
It was nice to see a majority.of thbe council step up for the.community last night.
I have known about the homeless camps in this park for atleast a decade when me and a friend ventured through the different trails. You can also see areas where it has been apparent that drinking has taken place. With the increase in homeless families or individuals and the decrease in jobs homeless people have crowded any shelter possible. I have seen families sleeping in their cars so it would not suprise me at all if the homeless have increased at Prarie Park. I know that in the evening the police used to drive through the park with there spotlights on but that was years ago. Not sure why the police would do this but they must have had an obvious concern for safety in that park a decade ago. Most people who are local and have been in the area for decades know not to mess with that park anyways.
I think expanding the shelter is a great idea. I think the long-term care for single homeless people was a great idea also. I would like to see a long-term shelter for chronic homeless families too. This expansion would give more people an oppurtunity to turn their life around and get back into the community with a job, goals, and affordable housing that they would be able to ease into and be prepared for.
Winter will be here soon and it is a shame that people and families with children will have to be turned away because the shelter is full. Will no other options what are these people supposed to do? Camp out at Dekalb government officials lawns so they get the point?
I'm concerned people are getting the wrong impression by the continuation of Ald. Baker's use of the term 'Tent City'. 'Tent City' in my mind conjures up what you see on TV of a large, established area of people living in tents. I have never once seen a tent up in People's Park. Our homeless usually don't live in tents. If they do, they take them down in the morning. They often sleep on the ground with or without a blanket. There are several lean-tos (or there were) set up where one can get out of the rain. They don't usually stay in People's Park during the day at all. The men pack their belongings into backpacks and carry them with them throughout the day on their travels around town. The families, you'll see them with strollers full of blankets, etc., the small children are walking alongside.
These folks know it's not ok to live in People's Park. The problem is, they have nowhere else to go. Mark my words… now that People's Park has been taped off and the police have set up camp there, those folks are living in other areas around town. One more reason why we NEED to let Hope Haven expand, IMO.
Good article Mac, thank you for the background on this. When I first moved to DeKalb, I had a small apt. on Roosevelt right where it comes out to then Huber Park. I've heard about the camp, but never personally witnessed it, although admittedly, I never ventured into the wooded area there. I'm dismayed that folks like Gallagher, Kammes, and Baker voted no for this expansion and that the city doesn't support this. I can't honestly say that I'm surprised by Baker's reaction to the camp. He's so out of touch with his ward. I tried to watch the meeting online before my exercise, but the sound was acting up on tv and the stream seemed choppy last night. What were Gallagher's or Kammes' or Baker's opposition to this? Hope Haven gets such a bum rap from folks around here and they do such good work and have a lot of success stories. I have personally helped fixed meals for Hope Haven, serve community meals at VAC and whether we like it or not, people are having a hard time these days. We need to extend a helping hand and support places like Hope Haven, not brush them under the carpet and hope they go away. Homelessness will never go away. Neither will poverty. According to recent IL Poverty numbers, DeKalb has 40% renters, who average a salary of $9/hr. I've heard that the average 2 bedroom apartment is around 800-900/month. Good luck finding that low of a rent. I know families paying 40%+ of their monthly income on rentals. In the Knolls, the cheapest place to rent is $1000 for one of Mason's townhouses. We need affordable housing in DeKalb along with strong workforce development. We also need to pitch in and help Hope Haven.
I really really hope the folks that live in this park are being questioned in the death of Toni..
Planning Commission member in the above rant is meant to be Mr. John Guio.
My other concern is that the park area at Prairie Park is like a wolf in lambs clothing. Students actually the entire public should be warned to be careful in this area. The university my son attends did something that showed me they were truly concerned about the students. During his orientation they advised and warned us all about area that should be considered off limits due to the crime level in these areas. Is that done here at NIU? I often wonder if certain powers to be at NIU make sure certain numbers pertaining to assaults and other reported crime on campus are not readily available for incoming students and their parents to see?
Maybe Aldermen Gallagher, Baker, and Kammes need to get off of their high political horses and take a step back at what many of their constituents, strike that, how about how many of their neighbors are having to learn to deal with lost jobs, no food, no roof over their and their family's heads.
Didn't know about tent city? It's actually in Baker's ward and Alderman Naylor's ward. I was glad to see the yes votes and Mayor ovlsen's yes to break the tie but this is no guarantee at all. Maybe former Planning Commission member had the correct foresight in this matter and problem thatis ever increasing in ours and many other communities in this country. Remember, neither you nor I are immune to the chance to become part of the homeless numbers. I worry about as I watch our government bodies run wild on their tax and spend initiatives.
Good story Mac but this story goes much deeper yet. The next few weeks will show many in this community just what really may lurk within Prairie Park.
Well, I don’t know about building a shelter where a tent city used to (or still does?) exist, but if the new DeKalb police station is ever built on west Lincoln Highway, the right construction technique would allow a convenient overlook into the hazardous area of Prairie Park. An observation platform and/or roof mounted camera or spotting scope might reduce crime in that park. Another reason to build new at that location.