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Rockford: Dumping ground for mentally ill and homeless, part one

August 5, 2009

Editor’s note: The following is the first in an ongoing series. If you have any information about homeless individuals being sent to the Rockford area from out of town or any other information related to this series, e-mail Jim Hagerty at jim.hagerty@rockrivertimes.com.

The number of seemingly homeless and those with nothing better to do than congregate on downtown street corners is increasing, some downtown residents say. Numerous police calls to the corner of Church and Mulberry streets have resulted in at least one arrest, and area business owners are on the lookout for suspicious activity.

The recent spike in calls to police has prompted Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson to get involved—personally.

The Rock River Times’ Editor and Publisher Frank Schier, who manages seven residential apartments and six commercial units in the building at Church and Mulberry, is working closely with Epperson in curbing the increasing number of incidents he’s encountered. In the last two months, Schier has been alerted to homeless residents defecating on his property, reported drug activity and threats of bodily harm.

While big-city problems have been noted in Rockford for many years, the number of alleged criminal activities of late, especially downtown, is feared to be at the hands of those arriving here from other cities. Reports indicate some current homeless residents may be the result of an influx of those released from jails, mental health facilities and other agencies outside of Rockford.

Schier, who’s been doing business downtown for more than two decades, has spoken to loiterers claiming to be from other cities. Although he’s often able to recognize street people on his block, new faces are emerging at what he fears is an alarming rate. Schier has been working with city officials to ensure downtown continues to be a safe place to live and work. Threats, thefts, loitering or other criminal behavior, he says, won’t be stood for, and reports will promptly be turned over to police.

(See related “A letter from the editor” on page A1.)

Local reports indicate shelters are seeing an increase in homelessness. Susan Skoglund from the Rockford Rescue Mission said the number of individuals seeking short-term help such as meals and overnight shelter has increased by as much as 20 percent at certain times this year. Last year, the Rescue Mission provided meals and short-term stays for more than 3,000 people. More than 125 men and 44 women became long-term residents, seeking rehabilitation at the Mission.

Skoglund said almost all of the long-term residents are from the Rockford area.

The Mission however, does not track geographical information about those seeking short-term help.

The Rockford Rescue Mission has recently acquired the Red Cross Shelter on Cedar Street, which it intends to use to house in-need women and children.

Rockford Police Department (RPD) does make numerous arrests for vagrancy and other street crimes. From where offenders hail isn’t always known.

“I couldn’t say how many [of those arrested] are from out of town,” Sgt. Michael Holman of the RPD said. “I can say that most of them are homeless.”

from the August 5 – 11, 2009 issue

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