By Dermot Connolly
A controversial homeless shelter operated by an Orland Park church since Oct. 1 remained open on Tuesday night against the wishes of the village government.
Pastor Jon Fogel of Hope Covenant Church said the basement of the church at 14401 West Ave. has been used as an overnight shelter for homeless people since Oct. 1 in conjunction with the Beds Plus program. Last Thursday, Orland Park village officials filed an injunction seeking a temporary restraining order after inspectors found 28 health and safety violations.
A hearing on the case was held Friday in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, but Fogel said Tuesday that a “substitute judge” who heard it chose not to enforce the temporary restraining order requested by the village because he said he did not have enough time to familiarize himself with the details.
“He couldn’t find any reason to find it an emergency situation,” said Fogel.
Another hearing is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 18.
Until being ordered not to, Fogel expects the shelter will be open each Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for those in need.
“We have had as many as 50 people staying here, including women and children. The village has not offered any alternative,” said Fogel, noting that this is the only overnight shelter in Orland Park.
Mayor Keith Pekau said last week that the village did not learn of the shelter until after it opened.
Although Fogel spoke informally during the public comment section of a village board meeting on Aug. 5 about his intentions to have a shelter, Pekau said no details were provided.
A detailed timeline of events and correspondence relating to the shelter since Oct. 4 has been posted on the village website at www.orlandpark.org.
“Wanting to help the homeless is an admirable goal. But they still have to follow the rules,” said Pekau. “Homelessness is definitely a problem in the metro Chicago area, but I don’t think it is a problem in Orland Park. They are busing people in.”
He said he knows of only one or two people known to be homeless in the village, including a woman often seen sleeping in the police station. “And she has a car.”
Fogel said people are bused to the shelter from a day center at St. Mark’s Church in Worth, but a few walk in.
“Everyone who comes is completely vetted onsite, so we know who is here. They are not allowed to leave once they come in for the night.”
He said the people who use the shelter are provided with a hot evening meal and breakfast and are given sack lunches before they leave.
“First and foremost, we are charged with protecting and maintaining the health and safety of the community, its residents and visitors. The sleeping arrangements utilized by the church does not meet these basic standards,” said Pekau. “We cannot simply look the other way on such critical life safety protections. God forbid, if something happened there, we would be blamed.”
“The violations stem primarily from the change in use from religious services to an overnight transient residential use,” he said.
“Especially in light of the transient nature of the users, it is important to make sure that critical safety protocols such as proper egress paths, exit stairways, accessibility, emergency lighting, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are all accounted for,” said Village Manager George Koczwara in a statement.
Fogel disputes that assessment.
“Of course, we have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. We have exit signs and will add another if needed.”
He said he couldn’t get into the specifics of what else the church could do to comply with the village regulations because he and his advisers are still determining what the violations are.
The church was also cited for providing prepared meals without appropriate kitchen facilities. In order to comply with village regulations, the church would have to seek a zoning variance allowing temporary residency. This would require a public hearing before the Plan Commission and a Village Board vote.
Fogel said he has received very few complaints about the shelter from village residents. Rather, he said he is heartened by the positive response he has received from people offering help. “I have had to clear out my voicemail three times because I am getting so many calls,” he said.