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Hope Covenant Church provided this image of one of the setups inside of the Orland Park building during its Tuesday evening shelters. Jessica Fogel Film and Photo
Bill Jones, Editor
3:21 pm CST November 18, 2019

A church that has faced criticism from some in the community and Village since in October opening a once-weekly homeless shelter is intent on continuing its efforts despite requests for a voluntary closure, health and safety code violations levied against it, and a request in Cook County court for a temporary restraining order on its efforts.

Hope Covenant is the Church. Orland Park is the Village. And the story is still unfolding.

The story so far

The Rev. Jon Forgel — pastor of Hope Covenant Church, located at 14401 West Ave. in Orland Park — in August presented plans to the Orland Park Village Board to operate a homeless shelter on its premises. And on Oct. 1, Hope Covenant opened its Tuesday evening shelters in conjunction with the network Beds Plus, which sets the rules and other particulars associated with running the shelter.

Between that Aug. 5 meeting and Oct. 7 — when Mayor Keith Pekau spoke at a Village Board meeting to say the church “did not take the required steps to ensure its compliance with applicable Village laws” and “cannot be allowed to operate as it did last week” — Fogel said he received no communication from the Village, despite multiple attempts on his part to work with the municipality and its mayor in particular. When previously asked if the Village communicated with the church between those dates, Pekau said “not that I am aware of.”

Less than two hours before the Oct. 7 meeting, Interim Village Manager Tom Dubelbeis sent an email to Fogel, asking that the church “voluntarily postpone the homeless shelter activity.” But the church has continued to run the shelter on Tuesdays since then, sometimes with as many as 50 guests. And Jonathan W. Cole, an attorney representing Hope Covenant, welcomed the Village to be “communicative,” and said the church was open to inspections though they were a “fishing expedition when they don’t want this to happen.”

Those inspections came Oct. 18 and, on Nov. 6, the Village delivered notification to Hope Covenant Church identifying “at least 28 health and safety code violations created by the operation of an overnight shelter in a building intended to be used solely for religious services,” according to a press release issued the same day by Orland Park. It again asked the church to discontinue its shelter until the issues were addressed.

Pekau previously noted that “a homeless shelter is not an approved use where the church is located,” and that to operate one the church leadership would need to request a zoning change and submit to a public hearing regarding that change. When asked whether or not he would support such an effort, he declined to comment.

The Nov. 6 press release from the Village noted the violations were cited “in conjunction with applicable building, health, life, safety, plumbing, accessibility, fire, electrical and mechanical codes,” considering the use for a shelter rather than simply a building for religious services. The basement, where the church establishes sleeping room for the shelter, had “insufficient fire and carbon monoxide protections, a lack of code-compliant exits and deficient accessibility standards,” according to the release.

The Village also noted that Hope Covenant does not contain a full commercial kitchen and has not been inspected as such. The Village shared concerns about proper food handling protocols, with meals being provided to users of the facility.

The Village further asked Hope Covenant to enlist professional help to retrofit the facility to certain standards.

Fogel responded to the release by saying “Orland Park is not operating with good faith” and the press release was a “publicity stunt to appease a nominal population of naysayers.”

He noted at the time of the inspection in mid-October that the Village did not notify Hope Covenant of any issues and let it operate again before issuing the press release. He also noted that the press release was sent out before the church received direct word of the violations.

“The single roadblock for the shelter is an administration that has functionally acted not in good faith and has not offered an alternative solution to housing those experiencing homelessness in Orland Park,” Fogel said.

Records show the Village inspected the property on Oct. 18 but further reached out to the International Code Council for clarification on use before issuing notice to the church. During that time, the church continued to operate the shelter, per Fogel. The Village produced a letter regarding the violations Nov. 5, and shipped it overnight it via FedEx, per records. The press release was sent to The Prairie at 9 a.m. Nov. 6.

Fogel argued the church is up to code for “the purposes it is primarily used for” and “more or less safe for the homeless population and the community than sleeping on the street in the winter months.”

Fogel added, though, that Hope Covenant will work to comply with both the Village’s recommendations for best practices and codes.

Tina Rounds, executive director of Beds Plus, reached out Nov. 7 to the Village, seeking a “reasonable compromise regarding the safety and health code” in an effort to avoid an extended legal battle and keep the shelter running.

Pekau — who was quoted in the Nov. 6 release as saying there is a risk inherent to “ignoring fundamental building safety standards” — responded to Rounds by email Nov. 8, stating, “the Village is not interested in any compromise regarding the safety and health code. We do not have two health and safety standards: one for the homeless and one for those that are settled, fortunate and safe. The facility as it stands today is doing a great disservice to those it hopes to serve: it is ill-prepared for an emergency.”

Taking it to court

Orland Park Village Manager George Koczwara noted Nov. 7 a representative for the church informed the Village, following its request for a voluntary hold on the shelter to address the issues cited, Hope Covenant did not intend to cease operations of the shelter. Nov. 8, the Village’s attorney subsequently filed for a temporary restraining order “as a result of the life and safety issues identified in the Village’s inspection report,” Koczwara noted in an email the same day to The Orland Park Prairie.

Cook County Circuit Judge Eve Reilly ordered Hope Covenant to provide a response to the Village by Nov. 14, with a hearing on the TRO continued to Monday, Nov. 18. Hope Covenant reportedly responded by the close of business Nov. 14, and the Village was preparing to address the response in court Nov. 18, Koczwara wrote. The hearing was continued to 2 p.m. Nov. 18.

Fogel said the church’s response outlines how the church plans to address the issues raised by the Village.

“I feel we were quite generous both in what improvements we will make and in our timeline for the completion of those items,” he said, noting some changes were addressed within 24 hours.

Orland Township Supervisor Paul O’Grady jumped into the fray Nov. 11, when in a Facebook post he called the Village’s tactics “heavy-handed” and said the Township has offered its support to the shelter.

But Pekau, in a email sent Nov. 13 to campaign supporters, noted the Village felt the need to seek “relief” from the courts because the church would not take action voluntarily. 

“We regret having to take this step, but the safety of everyone in our village required us to take action,” Pekau wrote.

He also provided a link to orlandpark.org/Hope-church, where he notes materials available via FOIA have been posted. Its timeline begins with Oct. 4, when it says the “Village is first notified that Hope Covenant Church is operating an overnight homeless shelter,” though the Village Board was notified of that intention in August.

In the exchanges found within those documents, Attorney Dennis Walsh — of Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins, which provides legal services to the Village — encouraged the church multiple times to cease operation of the shelter until it and the Village could sort out the cited issues. On Oct. 14, Cole told the Village the church would comply with all codes and allow inspection, but would not cease operations. He further noted Fogel originally brought his plans to Pekau’s attention at a clergy breakfast in April, and outlined further attempts on the part of the church to communicate with the Village. He wrote the Village had “ample opportunity” to communicate with the church prior to the opening the shelter. He also sought an apology for Pekau’s comments at the Oct. 7 meeting, calling them damaging to the church’s reputation.

Similar to addressing the concerns of the public after the shelter launched, Fogel on Nov. 15 published another Facebook Live video offering his timeline, takes and a Q&A at https://www.facebook.com/OrlandHope.

What comes next?

The judge was scheduled to hear from the Village the afternoon of Nov. 18 during a continued hearing, and Fogel said he was planning to speak the evening of Nov. 18 at the Village Board meeting, which came after The Prairie’s print deadline. He encouraged supporters to speak at that meeting, as well as send emails to the Village.

The court’s decision, meeting coverage and updates on the operation of the shelter can be found in a timely manner at OPPrairieDaily.com.