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Hope Covenant Church Pastor Jon Fogel speaks Nov. 18 during an Orland Park Village Board meeting regarding the homeless shelter being held once a week at the place of worship; and Mayor Keith Pekau watches the proceedings. Jon DePaolis/22nd Century Media
Jon DePaolis, Freelance Reporter
3:07 pm CST November 19, 2019

Residents speak in support of shelter, officials respond

The battle over whether or not to allow an Orland Park church to operate a night-a-week, seasonal homeless shelter spilled over from a Cook County courtroom to the Orland Park Village Board meeting on Nov. 18.

Supporters of Hope Covenant Church’s Beds Plus partnership filled Village Hall for the meeting to express dissatisfaction with the way the Village has handled the matter recently — most notably by appealing to the court to stop the church from operating the shelter until it comes into compliance with various Village codes and ordinances cited based on a change of use after the shelter’s opening.

Hope Covenant Church Pastor Jon Fogel addressed the Village Board during public comment, asking the Village to stop with the “frivolous injunctions and restraining orders that threaten the most vulnerable members of our society.”

“As this continues, I fear that the reputation of our great village will continue to be degraded because of your actions to be anti-homeless, anti-poor and anti-church,” Fogel said. “But it does not have to be this way. Cease litigation. For the love of God, stop trying to reclassify my church as a hotel. It’s ridiculous. Instead, come alongside the church to care for the people of our city who are down on their luck and hurting.”

Fogel also questioned the real motive behind trying to block the church from operating the shelter.

“If this is not really about public safety, and if this is not really about the protection of individuals at our shelter, but instead [is] a veiled attack with the goal of forcing the most vulnerable of Orland Park back on the streets where you can choose to ignore them for the next 30 years like you’ve ignored them for the last 30 years, then we the citizens of Orland Park will not be silent,” he said.

Fogel’s comments — as well as those from the public — came after a 16-minute presentation by Village staff detailing the history of building codes and the various ways in which the Village thinks the church is in violation.

“Building codes were established originally to protect the health, safety and welfare of all equally,” Assistant Village Manager Greg Summers said during the presentation. “Unfortunately, one of the things that is not so pretty about the building codes is that they were largely developed in response to tragedies. They have been very reactive in nature, and they represent lessons learned and often learned in the wrong way.”

Village Manager George Koczwara also read off a list of what he termed “frequently asked questions” regarding the homeless shelter at Hope Covenant Church. In particular, he responded to the debate over whether it is more important to just have a place for the homeless to stay — albeit with code violations — as opposed to being on the street.

“Unfortunately, the Village does not have two standards of building codes,” he said. “The building code that we have to follow is the building code.”

Residents speak out

During public comment, Laila Sadat, a 13-year Orland Park resident and graduate student at DePaul University, said she was disappointed in the Village’s “attempt to shut down the Beds program at Hope Covenant Church — especially as temperatures plunge to record lows.”

“I believe it is not only our social responsibility to take care of one another to the best of our ability but that the true measure of a community is how well we serve those in need,” she said.

Sadat asked the Village to start collaborating with the church to move forward.

“As leaders, I urge you to take righteous steps forward, so that families no different than yours and no different than mine have a warm place to sleep at night,” she said.

Richard Foist, also an Orland Park resident, said he wanted the community to not only be known for its wealth, beautiful subdivisions and shopping “but also to be known for helping the least of these.”

Regina Knapp, an 18-year resident of Orland Park and a retired Orland School District 135 teacher, said she was “deeply saddened that our Village has turned its back on this effort.”

“My brother died after 10 years on the street with only a backpack and some loose change,” she shared. “I am just saying, from a humanitarian aspect, I’d like to see the Village working together to make this effort work. There are homeless people out there.”

Diana Howard, an Orland Park resident and a veteran, said she took offense to the Village’s handling of the situation with the church.

“You wore the same uniform that I did, which makes this even more deplorable to me,” she said to the mayor. “Anyone who has ever worn a uniform understands that we are here to serve and protect — not only the rich but all. Even more important, those who cannot help themselves. With the number of homeless among the veterans being so high, I have to believe that some that you are denying a safe place to lay their head at night are veterans. You can use the codes as an excuse all you want, but I don’t think anybody here including yourself believes that that is the true reason this is happening.”

Tina Rounds, the executive director of Beds Plus, also spoke during public comment.

“We have 31 years of successfully and safely operating shelters in a wide variety of communities,” she said, before stating she would like to sit down with Pekau for further convresation.

Rounds also disagreed with the timeline the Village presented as to when it was first informed about the Beds Plus program at Hope Covenant. She said she first reached out to the mayor’s office in April. She also noted that of the many communities the program has worked with to establish shelters, Orland Park was the first one that “has required us to change classification.”

Village Board members respond

During Village Board comments at the end of the meeting, Trustee James Dodge said he recently spent some time at the shelter with Fogel and Rounds.

“I learned a lot that was not obvious to me when I was part of a unanimous decision to say, ‘Let’s start the litigation trail,’” Dodge said. “I’m sorry, but I would have thought differently had I known.”

After his visit, Dodge said he had a change of heart.

“I saw sprinklers, and I saw staff — and I did not perceive a whole hell of a lot of risk to a population who needed a warm bed,” he said.

Dodge said he also took a picture of the temperature that night, and it was 9 degrees.

“We’ve got some work to do,” he said. “I, now, personally, don’t necessarily agree with what I think was our legal theory going into the court, which is that this is a change in use. So, I’m going to have some very pointed questions for staff and the attorney when the time is right.”

Ultimately, Dodge said he would like to see the Village find a compromise.

Meanwhile, Trustee Cynthia Nelson Katsenes thanked everyone for attending.

“You can see the passion in how you feel,” she said. “I appreciate that. That is human compassion. We need to be a nicer world, but we have to work together. We will work together. But I think it is important to understand that all of us have a role.”

Katsenes said she wants the negativity to end.

“We have to look out for safety, and we have to look out for a lot of different things,” she said. “But we’re not mean.”

Later, Pekau admitted that there were “strong feelings on the issue.” But he said the proper processes were not followed by the church, which is why the Nov. 18 meeting was the first time such a public discussion was taking place at the board level.

“If they had been, you would have had the opportunity to be heard three times: at the planning commission, at committee and at the board,” he said. “Unfortunately, these opportunities were denied to you and to all of our citizens on this issue because Beds Plus and Hope Covenant Church decided not to follow the proper processes.”

Pekau further said the actions of Beds Plus and Fogel “do not engender a spirit of working together.”

“As your mayor, I will not ignore the law,” he said. “I take my oath of office seriously and the Village’s laws seriously. Ordinances and zoning process must be followed by everyone, and must be enforced equally and fairly. I have not heard anyone suggest that we change our laws, ordinance or processes, which tells me that no one thinks the laws, ordinance or processes are inappropriate or need changing.”

After Pekau finished his comments and asked for a motion to go into executive session, a woman stood up and began audibly praying for Pekau and the Village Board to reconsider their actions.

An issue far from finished

After the meeting, Pekau said he would not be able to comment on the matter further because of the pending litigation.

But Fogel wanted to address several of the points brought up by the Village during its presentation, such as the assertion that it was the church that first brought in lawyers.

“We asked a member of our church who happens to be an attorney to respond to a very firm letter,” Fogel said. “I had a very firm conversation with [former interim Village Manager] Tom Dubelbeis that was very unwavering, where he was making very significant statements. I asked for the former leadership [chairperson at Hope Covenant], who happens to also be an attorney who communicates often with municipalities and other ways, to simply just respond to this.

“We’ve not yet paid a lawyer. We’ve not yet incurred that cost. Every lawyer who has come to us to work with us has been pro bono.”

Fogel also disputed the Village’s timeline, stating that on Aug. 5, he attended a Village meeting to let them know he was intending to open a night-a-week, seasonal, temporary homeless shelter at Hope Covenant starting in October.

“For the timeline to begin anywhere [after] that date is specifically disingenuous,” he said.

Fogel also disagreed with the way the Village represented the court proceedings from earlier in the day on Nov. 18.

“As a judge ruled today, there is no emergency to immediately cease operations of the shelter,” Fogel said. “That was not represented in their timeline.

“The order was that she denied three of the four reliefs that the Village was seeking, including shutting down our shelter. She asked me if it would be acceptable for us to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. I told her we were already doing it. She said, ‘OK, well, just make sure you do it before tomorrow.’

“The Village has paid their attorneys to go downtown and lose to a small church being represented by pro bono attorneys.”

Fogel said at the end of the day he sees the shelter as a net gain for the village.

“Ultimately, the shelter makes our community safer — which has always been our intention and our position,” he said.