The holiday weekend afforded my wife the opportunity to organize a play date with some other moms, and when the last raindrops of Isaac passed through the group decided the festivities should be held outdoors at a local park.
A few parks were suggested and quickly dismissed until they decided that was worth the drive. The consensus seemed to be some of the local park options were not "as safe" as McCollum.
Since when are some area parks considered "safer" than others? What makes you feel nervous in the parks? Where are we, Zombieland? Have the undead been cornering the living in the port-o-potties? A few sketchy drunks passing a bottle around in the shadows of the monkey bars shouldn't be allowed to dictate where Mom takes her kids to play.
Only they do.
Even though my wife admitted she had never had a "problem" with anyone, she is a small woman alone with kids, and as such her feelings of vulnerability are understandable. Occasionally she has been approached with the usual boilerplate stories of misery and woe that those of us who work in the city have long ago learned to tune out. ("I need money for medicine," "I need two bucks for a train ticket," "Microsoft took a beating and I can’t pay margin call.")
Only this isn't a metropolis of 9 million people, and the aggressive panhandling happening around town seems disproportionately high for a relatively small place as Downers Grove.
The other morning a man approached me at Speedway who "needed money for gas" so he could go see his kids. When I asked the obvious question ("Dude, where's your car?") he stammered about how it was towed or around the corner or repossessed or stolen then repossessed around the corner or something almost plausible. I politely said no. He insisted. I pulled out my phone and dialed DG’s finest, and described an incident of aggressive panhandling. He walked away.
If you're going to panhandle so you can get your drink on, the least you can do is come up with a better lie. Hell, if it's a good story, I might even hand over a few bucks. (Example: "I'm from the future. An alien race from Zoldar has been infiltrating human society in order to drain earth of its resources. My car is really the infamous Q36 explosive space modulator, and I've modified it to run on unleaded gas so as to not attract alien attention. But if you could lend me…")
So when did things get this way? Has it always been like this? Are creepers in the parks and aggressive panhandlers just a part of routine existence in the Grove?
I asked a friend who has lived in the area her entire life (full disclosure: I have not), and the answer was an emphatic "no."
"I never saw public drunkenness or homelessness like this before, or witnessed any problems in the library or at a concert in the park, and please don't try to tell me no one had alcohol problems or social problems until now, because that's ridiculous."
I get a slew of emails asking me to address this topic, only I've been reluctant to do so at the risk of becoming known as Mr. Leona Helmsley. Others have a knee-jerk reaction of blaming the economy and shrugging it off.
In my search for answers, I spent a few hours in .
During the past six months, the Downers Grove police blotter has highlighted arrests ranging from drinking in public to battery to one gentleman arrested for disorderly conduct after he stomped around the playground exclaiming that he had “.” Charming.
On the day I visited, the park was quiet and idyllic, and completely devoid of kids. A short stroll around the area revealed what I call "The Why": a toxic trinity of ingredients that—when combined together by miscreant chefs—produce a poison stew of bad behavior and blotter fodder. Those are:
1. A park to act out in.
2. A convenience store that sells Natty Daddy 24-ouncers.
3. Close proximity to a train station.
Unfortunately, it’s a stew served all over town. From Hummer Park just adjacent to "Scare-view Station" (if you follow the blotter, you know this place should house its own police station and jail cell) to Fishel Park, conveniently located near the Main Street station and a short walk to a recently re-opened mini mart that features beer and cigarettes on the facade.
Increasingly, our parks, which I consider to be some of our village’s greatest assets, are becoming the backdrop for "The Creeper Show," and the people who suffer are the kids and families for whom the parks are intended.
“You're wrong! I take my kids to Hummer every day! I met my husband near the benches at Fairview Station! We celebrated our anniversary at the 7-Eleven! I’ve never had a problem! You're just a cold-hearted NIMBY who blames everything on the homeless!”
No, I don’t, and I purposely avoided using the word "homeless" until you brought it up. The problem in Downers Grove is bigger than homelessness and does not involve institutions that aid the homeless.
This is not a rant against homelessness, nor is it a rebuke against those who are homeless.
Homelessness is an unfortunate and sad circumstance brought about by a wide range of societal ills, from the collapse of family support or unexpected illness to addiction and economic stresses. I truly believe that almost all of us, whether we believe it or not, live closer to that edge than we think. I don't know that all of us could potentially fall into homelessness, but I'm willing to bet a lot of us could.
But there is a fine line between compassion for those who want (and deserve) compassion, and those who would take advantage of that compassion and use it as an enabler to "get their drink on." I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve always felt it, this fathomless well of misplaced empathy that drives people to bring leftovers out to the men hanging out in parks (even after they’ve been warned by police not to) or allow strangers to camp in the backyard.
Maybe it’s rooted in an older community that has seen its share of suffering over the years and empathizes; I don’t know. But it’s more than “The Why” that brings them here. Other communities in the area have the same circumstances but not the same problem.
For every working, poor mom with kids she is desperate to keep in Downers Grove schools (and what wouldn't any of us do to support her?), there are 10 creepers taking swings at imaginary adversaries in our parks. The struggle we have as a community is how to help one without enabling the other.
So here are some suggestions, and I would love to hear yours. If you’re approached by anyone with an unlikely story (like the older woman at Jewel who panhandles for "baby food money," then fills her cart with booze), don’t give in. Keep walking, take out your phone and call in a report of aggressive panhandling. Word will get around. A polite "no thank you" is not necessary. Word will get around.
If you see a "pass the bottle party" at a local park or train station, stop, don’t be intimidated, and call the police. Parks are for our kids. Word will get around.
If someone knocks on your door and states they "used to live here" or "need directions," or are selling magazine subscriptions "for the team," don’t engage. Close the door, lock it and call police. Word will get around.
Don’t allow anyone to take advantage of your compassion.
Each month, the village council hosts an informal "Coffee with the Council" gathering where residents can share concerns about the community. I plan on attending and suggesting a "single service ordinance." It’s a law used in other communities that places unique restrictions on the sale of malt liquor, spirits and wine, and also prohibits the sale of beer “in quantities of not less than a six-pack.”
I say drain the well. Word will get around.