Where it is, or is not, legal to shelter the homeless

Picture if you will a man who has spare room in his basement. He knows some local homeless people and wants to help them out, so he lets them use his basement to get out of the cold.

Now picture what happens to that man.

If he’s in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he gets a laudatory article in the New York Times in which he feels free to use his name and have his picture taken but not to publicize his address. He doesn’t want to be inundated by homeless people he doesn’t know, because his basement isn’t infinitely large, but he isn’t afraid of the city.

If he’s in Elgin, Illinois, though he should be afraid of the city:

Schiller said city officials and police officers came to his home with a warrant Tuesday and went into his basement. There, he said they found his ceiling height too low and windows too high and too small to be an egress.

“They shut me down and said I have 24 hours to return my basement to storage and take down – I have several cots with sleeping bags for everybody – or they’ll condemn the house.”

The law isn’t that different. New York City, you may remember, is where nuns couldn’t open a homeless shelter without an elevator. They have building codes there, and they use them.

…at their discretion.

The authorities in Brooklyn have decided not to molest Candido Arcángel. The authorities in Elgin decided to jump all over Greg Schiller for doing the same thing. Is this because Borough Park has a large Orthodox Jewish community with its own volunteer emergency services, while the subjects of Elgin are more, shall we say, passive towards law enforcement? Or did some regulator in Elgin burn his toast one morning, have a bad commute, and need someone to abuse?

Without sources in both cities’ bureaucracies, we will never know why this difference exists. What we do know is that, if we want to avoid a whipping, we need to learn our local rulers’ habits, not just the laws they proclaim.


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