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Local News

Joliet mayor wants new look at homelessness in city

Mayor O’Dekirk plans task force in wake of Harrah’s hotel homicide

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk wants the city to take a new look at homeless issues in the aftermath of the fatal stabbing of a Harrah’s Casino hotel guest last month.

O’Dekirk announced this week that he is forming a task force that will examine, among other topics, the number of homeless people coming into Joliet from out of town.

“When there are homeless people from outside the area coming into the community, I think that needs to be looked at,” O’Dekirk said Wednesday.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, O’Dekirk announced that he will create a task force in the next few weeks.

The announcement generated push-back from homeless advocates, who questioned why the mayor did not come to them before proposing the task force.

O’Dekirk said he will include them on the task force if they are interested. But he also said Wednesday that he wants a new look at the issue.

“I think it will be a different group,” O’Dekirk said of the task force. “But we certainly have to work with them [homeless advocates] and the social service agencies.”

The mayor noted that his announcement has received a positive response from people outside the social services.

“A lot of first responders are glad that I’m bringing this up because they deal with it every day,” he said.

O’Dekirk prefaced his announcement at the Tuesday meeting with comments about the Harrah’s homicide, which he described as “a horrible incident.”

A Wisconsin man was stabbed 26 times and robbed March 24 on the hotel’s fifth floor, police said.

Harrah’s has had “a stellar record” on security and safety, O’Dekirk said. “We’ve had very few or any problems of any incidents at Harrah’s.”

He described the suspect as being “not from Joliet but was homeless here in our city.”

Robert A. Watson, 25, whom police initially said was from Chicago but later was listed in court records as a resident of Normal, was arrested at the downtown library the day after the homicide.

Police have not said where Watson was staying in Joliet.

Sandi Perzee, executive director for the MorningStar Mission homeless shelter, said she had heard Watson was living in abandoned buildings.

“He was not in any of our shelters,” Perzee said.

Daybreak Center, the other homeless shelter in Joliet, also has said Watson was not a resident there.

Perzee spoke at the Tuesday council meeting, saying she had been contacting other providers of homeless services after hearing O’Dekirk was going to announce a task force.

“Nobody had heard from you mayor. Nor had I,” Perzee said.

Perzee later said was relieved somewhat by O’Dekirk’s comments that homeless providers could be part of the task force.

On Wednesday, Perzee said she and representatives from Daybreak Center and the Will Council Center of Community Concerns had all phoned the mayor’s office and asked to be on the task force.

“We do work with the homeless population. We should have a voice,” she said.

Perzee said MorningStar Mission does not see large numbers of people coming to the shelter from Chicago or downstate cities such as Normal, noting those areas have their own homeless shelters. But Will County residents who lose homes may wind up in Joliet, she said.

“Joliet is the county seat of Will County,” Perzee said. “If people are coming to the Will County Health Department to seek services, they come to Joliet. If they come to the Will County Center for Community Concerns, they come to Joliet.”

Garland Mays, president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Council, also spoke at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, saying he and others in the city’s neighborhood councils volunteer at the local homeless shelters.

“At the end of the day, these are people who have just fallen on hard times and bad luck,” Mays said.

He said the neighborhood councils had not heard from the mayor about his plan for a task force and invited him to their meetings.

Again, O’Dekirk said he would come to a meeting and said neighborhood leaders could call his office if they were interested in joining the task force.

While the mayor emphasized the slaying at the Harrah’s Hotel downtown, he said problems related to homelessness also are found on West Jefferson Street and the area around Amita Saint Joseph Medical Center Joliet.

All three areas are prominent parts of Joliet where city officials are trying to encourage economic redevelopment. They also are areas where social service agencies and medical providers can be found.

O’Dekirk described homelessness as “something that has festered for some time” in Joliet.

“I think it’s time,” he said, “for us as a community to have an intelligent and pointed conversation on this issue.”

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