“Tent City” controversy continues
July 17, 2009
A self-governed tent community of homeless people in Champaign has presented a partial solution to the area’s homelessness and low-income housing issues, but many Champaign citizens are unhappy with this solution.
Safe Haven, the tent community, is a response to Champaign’s housing issues, said Jesse Masengale, a resident of Safe Haven. With the closing of Gateway Studios in Champaign and Autumn Glen Apartments in Rantoul, there has been an influx of homeless people with nowhere to go.
The community houses approximately 8 homeless people. It has been assembled for about a month and is located in the backyard of Champaign’s Catholic Worker House, 317 S. Randolph St.
The fact that Safe Haven is self-governed is a source of pride for the members, but seen as a problem by many neighbors.
Safe Haven has ten guidelines for members which includes no physical violence towards members, themselves or others, no alcohol or drugs and a seven-hour service requirement for the community itself or the Catholic Worker House.
“There is no alcohol or drug use,” said Masengale. “Quiet time for Safe Haven is at 10:00.”
“We take pride in policing ourselves,” he added.
Despite this, neighbors voiced concerns at the Champaign City Council meeting on Tuesday that Safe Haven participants were engaging in disruptive behavior and were intoxicated.
The Savvas family’s medical clinic is adjacent to the community. Members frequently trespass on to their property, said Maggie Savvas, Champaign resident.
“I witnessed a drug deal yesterday at 9:30 in the morning,” Savvas said at the meeting on Tuesday. “They were barbecuing on our parking lot. It’s party time all the time.”
Conrad Wetzel, a Champaign resident belives there needs to be a distinction between Safe Haven members and people who come to the Catholic Worker House for free meals. Safe Haven has no control over those people’s behavior, he said.
“I would encourage neighbors to get to know the people who live in Safe Haven,” he added.
The policing of the community has also been an issue. Neighbors say they have called the police when they have felt unsafe.
“These are the only people that can protect us and keep order,” Savvas said.
“I know I don’t feel as safe in my house as I used to,” she added.
On the other hand, Safe Haven members and supportive Champaign citizens believe that the police are intimidating them.
A. Belden Fields, emeritus professor of political science at the University, received a ticket late at night while aiding the community.
“It was obvious it was punitive,” he said. “You can police in a way that doesn’t depend on intimidation and trickery.”
Ultimately, the problems between the community and the neighbors may stem from a lack of communication, said Kenny Bishop, a residential volunteer at the Catholic Worker House.
“Of all the neighbors that have spoken to the police, none have come to us with problems,” he said.
Zoning laws and neighbor complaints are putting pressure on the community to dissemble. Safe Haven residents would like to relocate instead. Masendale has asked the Champaign City Council to lease them a new property in a different location.
“We’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking to help ourselves,” he said.
A neighborhood meeting with some city council attendance was held on Wednesday, but the city has yet to reach a resolution.