Decatur's most vulnerable suffer greatest losses from city actions
Decatur is one of the poorest cities in Illinois and residents who live in much of downtown Decatur live in one of the region’s poorest census tracts. For example, people who live in the downtown census tract are in the 99th percentile nationally for low income and 94th percentile for low life expectancy. Given the demographics of our downtown population, one would predict that the city of Decatur would be passing laws and taking actions that will help lift our most vulnerable residents out of poverty and improving health outcomes. Instead, the city is closing its public spaces to the people who use them and destroying possessions of those who have the least.
CLOSING DOWNTOWN PARKS HAS GREATEST IMPACT ON THOSE WITH LEAST
Those living in downtown Decatur live in a census tract in the 90th percentile for lack of green space. Green spaces, even small ones such as Central Park and Preston Jackson Park, have many health benefits including decreased incidences of diabetes (individuals living in downtown Decatur are in the 94th percentile for diabetes). Thus, we should encourage people to enjoy their greenspaces at the times that their schedule allows them to be enjoyed. Instead, the city council voted to close our downtown parks from midnight to 6:00 AM and can fine people in violation of the ordinance.
The ordinance was opposed by the Macon County Continuum of Care, a coalition of organizations that help people experiencing homelessness. As stated in its December 19 letter to the Decatur City Council, “This ordinance will disproportionately impact the individuals that we serve who are experiencing homelessness in our community. … The enforcement of this ordinance will create additional barriers to securing permanent housing … and an erosion of trust between those who need help and those who should be helping them. It will increase and escalate interactions with law enforcement officers, which could result in additional unwanted consequences.”
DESTROYING POSSESSIONS OF THOSE EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS IS INHUMANE
Last week, the city of Decatur may have destroyed the possessions of four individuals experiencing homelessness and living downtown including photo identification, birth certificates, personal photos, and a Christmas gift. The destruction of this property was unnecessary given that the City of Decatur is a member of the Continuum of Care, and the Continuum of Care agencies know who those experiencing homeless are and how to reach them. Thus, even if one’s possessions needed to be removed, the city could have more effectively communicated with its partners and acted in a manner that demonstrated greater levels of compassion, empathy, and humanity to those who may be experiencing the worst time period in their lives. Furthermore, the state’s Bill of Rights for Homeless provides “the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence.” Given the possible destruction of property by the city, an external, independent investigation as to whether rights were violated may be warranted.
DECATUR CAN CHOOSE TO BECOME A MODEL CITY FOR INDIVIDUALS OF DIVERSE SOCIOECONOMIC BACKGROUNDS
When one is not awake at 1:00 AM, it is easy to conclude that it is okay to close public spaces at that time. When one has never slept in a homeless shelter, it is easy to conclude that this is the best choice for those living without shelter. However, these conclusions come from a city council whose members are not experiencing homelessness and are not living in poverty.
Decatur and its downtown area can become a model city for individuals of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead, the city and its council have unnecessarily driven additional wedges between socioeconomic groups and created barriers to our poorest residents to achieving their American Dream. You can buy a $300 sweater downtown, but local ordinances make it difficult to buy a $5 taco from a food truck around Central Park. You can ring in the new year with a champagne toast inside the Transfer House if you pay a $100 rental fee, but if you celebrate outside, you may receive a fine. The city of Decatur and its council can make better decisions and I hope that 2023 is the year we make them.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT DOWNTOWN DECATUR CENSUS TRACT
Data about the downtown census tract that includes the Central Business District in this post can be found at: https://screeningtool.geoplatform.gov/en/#14.38/39.84219/-88.95075 This census tract is considered disadvantaged. Below are some of the thresholds that this tract exceeds and their definitions: 99th percentile nationally for low income (people in households where income is less than or equal to twice the federal poverty level), 99th percentile for poverty (share of people in households where income is at or below 100% of the Federal poverty level), 99th percentile for unemployment (number of unemployed people as a part of the labor force), 98th percentile for low median income (comparison of median income in the tract to median incomes in the area), 98th percentile for asthma (share of people who have been told they have asthma), 97th percentile for housing cost (share of households making less than 80% of the area median family income and spending more than 30% of income on housing), 97th percentile for energy cost (average annual energy costs divided by household income), 94th percentile for diabetes (share of people ages 18 years and older who have diabetes other than diabetes during pregnancy), 94th percentile for low life expectancy (average number of years a person can expect to live), 90th percentile for lack of green space (amount of land, not including crop land, that is covered with artificial materials like concrete or pavement) and this area is considered an area with historic underinvestment (census tracts with historically high barriers to accessing home loans).