Short Take: A Deep Freeze in Elgin

Don’t the homeless deserve to be treated with  dignity? From this is born regulations to assure that safety net, because the homeless* are still human beings even if they smell bad and you really would prefer they stay out of sight or pee in their own homes (the ones they don’t have). How else can we assure that they be treated in the manner to which they’re entitled, according to people who have no faith in others, who see others as intrinsically malevolent and thus untrustworthy, if rules aren’t imposed.

And no one loves them some rules more than the well-intentioned. Rules assure that their dictates are carried out, their wishes are enforced by the means of benevolent force. And that force came down on Greg Schiller in Elgin, Illinois.

A man’s home may be his castle, but even castles are governed these days by zoning codes and other local ordinances. An Illinois man named Greg Schiller had that lesson reinforced after he opened his basement to homeless people, letting them sleep there overnight during the recent deep freeze that enveloped much of the country. No way, said city officials in Elgin, the Chicago suburb where he lives. They shut down Mr. Schiller’s “slumber parties,” as he has called them, on grounds that they violated a fistful of municipal regulations, among them ventilation and fire-safety requirements.

If you’re homeless, and it’s freezing outside, you might be more concerned about surviving the night than the rules imposed by the well-intended. And even the well-intended would agree, even though they will never grasp how they created the problem that now brings tears to their well-intended eyes.

This is a situation that has arisen in various jurisdictions from time to time, with inherent tensions between a human instinct that many people would deem admirable and government codes that many of the same people would regard as sensible. At some point, courts may have to determine which value can claim to promote the greater public good.

The New York Times is adorable when it ascribes virtues to courts they don’t possess. The legal question isn’t what promotes the greater public good, but whether the government has the authority to craft the rules demanded by the well-intended.**

That’s not how Elgin officials viewed it. To them, Mr. Schiller in effect had created a shelter of his own and blatantly flouted various ordinances, for instance by not having enough exits from the basement in case of a fire.

Surely, no one wants the homeless to suffocate in an unventilated basement, or burn in a fire without adequate egress. Surely, the government of Elgin has the authority to create a building code for their protection. And surely, Elgin officials were duty-bound to enforce these palliative rules that protected from homeless from everything but freezing to death.

So is a man’s home his castle? Schiller, like any decent person, sees “a little leeway, a little grace” as the safety valve between well-intended rules and freezing to death. But what then are the rules of the government as to where in your castle the homeless can sleep worth if they are ignored?

There are solutions to such dilemmas, though the courts aren’t the place to find them. They involve considering such issues as the homeless freezing when crafting the rules for their safety and dignity. But will the well-intended yet shallow control their urges to control other people’s conduct to allow for saving the lives of homeless people on a freezing night?

And if, despite Schiller’s best efforts, a fire broke out and the homeless he took in died, there would be a new call to regulate, plus punish at the end of a gun, anyone trying to save the life of a homeless person contrary to the rules. You want rules? You got rules. And with those rules will come frozen homeless people. But at least the heat is on at the New York Times, so they can feel terrible about the lack of mercy, of grace, their beloved rules caused to frozen homeless people.

*Yes, some homeless people are drug addicts, for whom you may have little empathy. But some are ordinary folks who, but for a couple of unfortunate twists of fate, could be you. And some are mentally ill, and don’t stand a chance of finding their way home. It really doesn’t matter, as they are all human beings, regardless of anything else.

**And don’t even consider feeding them with food prepared in a kitchen that hasn’t passed sanitary code inspections. Better they should eat from garbage cans, or starve, than eat food from unapproved kitchens.

26 comments on “Short Take: A Deep Freeze in Elgin

  1. Wrongway

    (After watching a couple of old car videos, I could literally hear Jeremy Clarkson’s voice in my head while reading that.. )

    Aren’t most, if Not All, of these codes, or ordinances, or whatever, basically a way for the local govt to get revenue ??
    Sure these statutes may have a purpose, and in the grand scheme of things it’s labeled as to protect us from ourselves.
    But when ya can’t afford to pay, or you’re useless to the ‘City’ because you’re broke, it kind of shows where their loyalty lies.
    Is their loyalty the people, to revenue, or making sure no one escapes their overview of their statutes & ordinances ??
    I can’t say.. but it’s sad..

    1. SHG Post author

      Sometimes yes, but most of the time the regs are the brainchild of good intentions, and then subsumed in the revenue process as it dawns on someone that if they have to pay $10 to get a permit, why not $100, then $1000?

  2. REvers

    There is method to the madness. The more of them who freeze to death, the lower the homeless population gets, which lets Elgin officials trumpet how the city has X% fewer homeless since the last count.

      1. B. McLeod

        Most localities hold them for a brief period, then cremate when nobody claims them. This does not tie up any real estate, like the potters’ fields of olden days, and once the frozen homeless are ashes and stardust, they are finally free to go wherever the wind takes them. It’s so beautiful.

        1. Noxx

          Feed the homeless to the poor, reducing food stamp use, and further incentivizing not becoming homeless. Win / Win.

  3. Beth Clarkson

    In the NYTimes piece, “Laura Valdez, the assistant city manager, said, “but we do have shelters for the homeless.” At any given time, she said, her city of about 110,000 has about 100 men and women in need of shelter.” Does this number strike anyone else as ridiculously low?

  4. Jake

    Sounds like a good old fashioned case of nimby-ism to me. If not for some perturbed, busy-body neighbor to call the city and complain, this would have been unlikely to get a city inspector out of the chair behind his desk in that warm, comfortable city employee office.

    But then, what’s the alternative? Should there be no regulations? Should anyone be allowed to do anything they like with their home? Should I be allowed to create a hotel out of my apartment? Or a nightclub? Perhaps my neighbors wouldn’t mind if I started throwing concerts in my living room?

    Are these questions absurd? Hardly. These rules exist because most people are morons who have tried any or all of the above, much to the chagrin of everyone around them. The grey lady has brought a heart-wrenching exception to all of our attention this morning, but this is one anecdote. Aggregate behavior is considered when making policies, not individual behavior.

    1. SHG Post author

      Aggregate behavior is considered when making policies, not individual behavior.

      That’s correct, but only part of the story. The more one tries to micromanage society through the imposition of regulations (what does the federal govt alone have now, about 35,000 regs enforced via criminal punishment?), the greater the likelihood of “heart-wrenching” “exceptions” for which the regs provide no option.

      I get it, you libertarian burgermeisters want your palaces’ market values unencumbered by the odor of the homeless, but you have to either leave it at big rules and let go of the social engineering or suffer the occasional dead body when it turned out that your totally well-intended rule didn’t work out the way you hoped. Even so, you have to put a lot more effort into crafting even the big rules to account for unintended consequences that didn’t make it onto your radar when you cried that something must be done!!!

      As for my good buddies at the NY Times, they need to decide whether to cry about the need for more, and more, and more, regs to create their social Utopia or stop whining about the exceptions. There are always exceptions. And that courts’ job isn’t to clean up the mess made by their simplistic cures for whatever makes them cry at any given moment.

      1. Jake

        Life is complicated. I get it, the Libertarian response to everything is: Fewer regulations. Regulations bad. However, not everyone agrees. In fact, when it comes to Libertarianism, MOST people disagree.

        Using the example provided today, I’d say the correct response is another regulation: The city, county, or state must provide safe, dignified housing for everyone who is homeless without stipulations which would force someone to choose probable death from freezing over a warm bed and hot food.

        Since you’re in the mood to talk about public policy today, you might mull over the fact that it would cost this country about 1% of the annual budget to completely eliminate homelessness. But we don’t. All that human suffering could be ended for 2/3 the cost of a single Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier. But our leaders would rather watch the homeless suffer.

        Why is that, do you think?

            1. SHG Post author

              It’s adorable that you think so well of your intellectual insights. Self-esteem is very important to kids these days.

            2. Jake

              You can attack me personally all you want.

              Right on schedule, another example [Ed. Note: Nope. You don’t get to go down whatever path strikes your fancy. Sorry, Jake, but you’re stuck with the same limitations as all the deplorable people who aren’t as woke as you.]

            3. SHG Post author

              Don’t blame me. It’s not my fault you write stupid shit and get your feelz all hurt.

              Tell you what, my dear old friend. Write an SJ post (since you don’t have a blog). I’ll post it. See how it goes. Maybe you’re as persuasive and intellectually sound as you believe yourself to be. Maybe not. Give it a test and see what happens. I do this for you because you’re special to me. And you are.

            4. Alex Stalker

              If you really want to teach him a lesson, you’ll make him moderate the comments to the post too.

        1. Miles

          Who knew you were such a Trumper, Jake? So it’s all about take care of Americans at home and screw people in other countries.

    2. B. McLeod

      Once the frozen homeless are ashes and stardust, they can blow into Schiller’s basement without violating the zoning code.

  5. Cattress

    Life is complicated. But the government usually makes it more complicated, and always more expensive. Seem’s like Jake’s suggestion that the government could end the scourge of homelessness with a modest amount of money, if only our leaders didn’t want to see the homeless suffer, is a rather complicated solution put in oversimplified terms. It does nothing to protect the people in danger of freezing to death today or tomorrow, or next week or next year. I’m a humanitarian and a libertarian. The bureaucrats in this situation could have very simply installed some smoke and carbon monoxide detectors from the local fire department , gave Mr. Schiller a stack of cards for local social workers so he could help people connect with services, and then set up a time to help him write a grant request or apply for an existing grant to make some home improvements to bring him into code. Unless his guests trespass on his neighbors property or rights to quiet enjoyment of their own property, they have no right to complain what Mr. Schiller does on his own property. Life becomes so much less complicated when we stop trying to control what everyone else does and focus on our own conduct.

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