IRVING PARK — After coming under fire for praising his supporters for clearing “unnecessary debris” — which turned out to be the belongings of a man experiencing homelessness — Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) said his supporters made a “mistake.”
The incident has garnered widespread attention for what some describe as a “heartless” incident and what others are now calling an opportunity to address homelessness on the Northwest Side.
Gardiner was first criticized shortly after praising his supporters, who he calls “Gardiner’s Angels,” in a Jan. 12 Facebook post in which he thanked them for clearing “unnecessary debris” from near the Irving Park Blue Line Stop. But instead of throwing away garbage, Gardiner’s supporters threw away possessions belonging to 48-year-old Kenneth Padletic, a man experiencing homelessness who was away from his spot on the 4000 block of North Keeler Avenue.
Beginning on the morning that Gardiner’s post went up and continuing for days, constituents left comments, some tagging Gardiner, informing him of what actually happened. Then, on Jan. 22, Block Club Chicago wrote about the post and about Padletic.
On Saturday night, 11 days after his initial post and two days after the story appeared in the media, Gardiner again took to Facebook, writing that he was “deeply concerned to have learned that a homeless resident within our community had his possessions inadvertently discarded during a requested viaduct cleanup.”
“This was a mistake,” Gardiner wrote. “Everyone has the right to their possessions, to be treated fairly and with dignity.”
Gardiner said that he contacted the Department of Family and Support Services to offer Padletic shelter and other city services.
“Representatives met with him this morning. Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention, and if there are other individuals in our community in need of services, please call 311 or my office at 773-85- 0799,” he wrote.
On Sunday, Padletic was still at his spot on the 4000 block of North Keeler Avenue. He said no one from the city had talked to him.
Gardiner did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment for this story.
Jason Elewski, who moved to Gardiner’s ward about 18 months ago from Logan Square, said Gardiner’s posts are disappointing.
“My wife and I are newer to the community than a lot of his critics, so I came in with an unbiased opinion. But I started seeing this pattern of deflection and avoidance and aggression towards his detractors, especially through social media,” Elewski said. “So, his initial response was not a surprise and once there was media coverage his second response was not a surprise, but it was infuriating to see him shift blame to volunteers that he sent there to clean things up.”
James Suh, who lives nearby, was frustrated with Gardiner, too.
“There’s nothing that indicates that he was directly responsible for the event that happened. We contacted him immediately after he posted initially, Suh said. “From the [Saturday] post you might get the idea that he didn’t know anything about it until 10 days after it happened and he doesn’t take any responsibility.”
Last week Suh offered Padletic a short-term respite from the January cold, allowing him to sleep inside his office at this nearby business, the Car Care Auto Spa, 3618 N. Cicero Av.. As of Sunday, Padletic has not taken Suh up on his offer, which homeless advocates say is not surprising, as trust issues are often a major hurdle for people who are experiencing homelessness.
Homeless advocates also said they hope the incident with Padletic’s possessions and the controversy surrounding Gardiner’s social media posts can lead to more understanding.
“It’s an incredible empathy opportunity for people who aren’t normally sensitive to the fragility of our homeless neighbors’ lives,” said Jacki Belile, pastor of Jefferson Park’s Eden United Church of Christ, 5051 W. Gunnison St.
In September, Eden united teamed up with members of five other groups — Jefferson Park Forward, Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, Neighbors for Affordable Housing, and Illinois State Representative Lindsey LaPointe — to form the Working Group on Homelessness in Jefferson Park.
Belile said the fact that members of Jefferson Park Forward and the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association — two groups who often support opposite political candidates — are united to help the homeless is encouraging.
“Something like this proves there are neighbors of good will who may not agree on everything but who can come together for compassion and making a difference,” Belile said.
State Rep. Linsey LaPointe (19th), who has a background as a social worker and has done street outreach with the homeless in Old Irving and Six Corners, also said the incident involving Padletic is an opportunity.
“Part of what happened is very unfortunate but it’s a great opportunity to do community education and garner people’s desire to help and put that into action,” LaPointe said.
She stressed while residents may be well-meaning, showering people experiencing homelessness with items and money may not be the best course of action.
“Even if an individual is super motivated to help, there is no singular thing that is going to help somebody exit homelessness because there generally is no single thing that caused someone to end up homeless,” LaPointe said.
“Let’s say someone wanted to pay two months of rent for someone, that is not going to solve the long term problem. A homeless person may ask for a very specific thing, oftentimes money. But that may not be what they really need,” she said. ” … This is what outreach workers do, they build a relationship, they build trust. And then they find out what they really need to get out of this situation.”
Monica Dillon, an organizer with the Northwest Side Coalition Against Racism & Hate, issued a statement on the incident involving Padletic and also said it can be a “teachable moment” at a vital time, pointing out that homelessness in Jefferson Park has doubled in the last three years.
“Jefferson Park and the areas around it have experienced double the numbers. We have to look at improving the resources and the services. Not just throwing money at one person but really getting the professionals in here,” Dillon said.
To help, LaPointe, Belile and Dillon urge neighbors to donate to homeless advocacy groups. Those looking to donate to the Working Group on Homelessness can do so online or by contacting one of the six groups that make up the organization.
Additionally, on Jan. 31, the Chicago Union of the Homeless is sponsoring a webinar on Responding to Housing Emergencies In Chicago.
Little by little, step by step, people can make a difference, LaPointe said, “to chip away at the issue at homelessness, which is super-complex.”
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