Peru Mayor Ken Kolowski told the Peru City Council on Aug. 14 he received calls from residents asking about the “panhandling situation” by the city’s chain stores, further telling them citizens are concerned because there are children on the roads.
Other Peru aldermen weighed in, asking questions of Peru Police Chief Sarah Raymond about the city’s response.
Raymond told the council panhandling is a constitutionally protected right and police won’t write citations.
“When we get calls, we go out and make sure they are not in the roadways and that their kids are being safe, but there isn’t much we can do other than that,” she said.
In January 2021, a federal court in Illinois ruled the state’s panhandling law was unconstitutional, citing the First Amendment and saying it violates freedom of speech. The ruling followed a federal lawsuit filed by two homeless men in Downers Grove arguing the law prohibited panhandling but allowed for pedestrians who obtained a permit to stand in medians to collect political signatures and donations.
Raymond said Peru police offer help and assistance when they can, including access to a trust that can provide money for meals and a place to stay, among other necessities.
“We have things that we can give to them when we do see them,” Raymond said. “If a business owner doesn’t want them on their property then they are free to call us.”
Homelessness is a growing issue in the Illinois Valley.
Illinois Valley Public Action to Deliver Shelter Executive Director Carol Alcorn said the overnight shelter in Peru has seen an increase of clients over the past several years, increasing from 371 to 492 from 2022 to 2023.
After opening on Aug. 8, the shelter already has served 75 people.
There are multiple reasons for homelessness and PADS has kept a detailed record listing mental health, family dispute, loss of job/ sufficient income and eviction being at the forefront as the leading causes.
Alcorn said those struggling with mental health has “really spiked” following COVID, saying the pandemic “triggered” those with bipolar, anxiety and depression and has caused an inhibited job performance.
“Communities are working more diligently than in the past about providing this level of care,” she said. “It’s not an illness that you can see.”
Alderman Mike Sapienza asked Raymond what percentage of those panhandling in Peru take the assistance offered by the police department.
“Generally, the majority of them will,” Raymond said. “They will ask for the resources. A lot of them, especially with kids, are truly on hard times.”
With the topic not on the agenda, Raymond didn’t have data to provide the council on the number of people who follow through with resources, saying she would need some time to prepare it. The mayor apologized for springing the conversation at the meeting.
Sapienza said it would be “interesting” to find out how many people follow through after receiving help, because “if they need something they would follow through, but if they didn’t, they probably don’t need anything.”
During the discussion, Sapienza said he helped two or three people panhandling by pointing out two or three “help wanted” signs.
Alcorn said PADS has reached out to those who are panhandling and offered assistance, but some people don’t want to abide by the shelter’s regulations.
“One was panhandling at Walmart and I stopped and I personally talked to him,” Alcorn said. “He had been a past client. He didn’t really like the structure, he likes to do what he wants to do and if it gets too cold he’ll come in.”
Alderman Rick O’Sadnick asked if the council could consider putting up a traffic sign that says “for traffic safety please don’t give to persons in the roadway,” similar to what he said is up in New Orleans.
“Sometimes it’s hard to say no, it’s OK to say no,” O’Sadnick said. “There are other programs.”
Raymond said the city can’t put up signs on private property and said “you can tell people not to give all day long, but somebody’s going to give.”
Kolowski said if the public wants to see panhandling go away they have to stop giving them money.
“Once they stop and they don’t give them money,” Kolowski said. “They don’t give them nickels, dimes, and quarters. They are going to go away and they’re going to move on to another stop.”