A panhandler on the Harlem Avenue median over the Eisenhower Expressway.

Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins is asking the Illinois Department of Transportation to put up a taller fence on the north side of the Eisenhower Expressway to deter drug use and what he described as aggressive panhandling.

According to Ken Gross, acting police chief, the issue is centered on the south edge of the Forest Park Community Garden at 631 S. Harlem Avenue, northwest of the spot where Harlem Avenue crosses the expressway. Hoskins said that in the past there was drug usage on the south side of the expressway, but the village worked with the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways to fence it off. But, in recent weeks, the activity seems to have shifted north.

The village contracted a biohazard clean-up company to remove used syringes, and  police officers started making regular checks. The village reached out to IDOT to build a new fence, which Hoskins sees as a more permanent solution, and said he reached out to Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st) to try to move the process along. In the meantime, Gross said that officers will continue patrolling the area.

The interaction includes several overlapping jurisdictions. The east side of Harlem Avenue is part of Oak Park, while the west side is part of Forest Park. As state highways, both Harlem Avenue and the Eisenhower Expressway are controlled by IDOT.  

The community garden is located right by expressway’s northern edge. There’s a chain link fence on the south edge of the garden, but during a recent visit, the Review saw personal belongings on the other side. And while a fence continues along the north side of the expressway between Harlem and Des Plaines avenues, it gets shorter further west. 

On an average day, it isn’t unusual to see panhandlers walking the Harlem Avenue median, approaching drivers as they wait to cross. Hoskins said the village has been getting increasing complaints about panhandling and drug use near the intersection.

“Some of the panhandling has been aggressive, and it concerns residents for safety as well as public health reasons,” he said. “And some of the panhandlers are known for using drugs.”

Gross said that it’s not unusual to see homeless residents on the south end of the community garden, but that he’s never seen anywhere near as many discarded hypodermic needles as there have been in recent weeks. He said that he wasn’t sure whether it indicated increased heroin use or that more people were dumping them at that location, but the spike concerned him.  

Hoskins said that last year, the village saw a similar problem on the south side of the expressway. Tim Gillian, then the village administrator, personally saw used needles scattered there. The village reached out to Johnson, who worked with the county highway department to fence it off.  

Hoskins said he was especially concerned about the activity because it was happening next to the community garden. 

The mayor said the village contracted a biohazard disposal company to get rid of the drug paraphernalia. Gross said that his officers “have been doing premise checks to try to curtail drug use” – something that the department will continue doing in the future. 

Both he and the mayor said that the long-term solution would be to get IDOT to build a better fence. Hoskins said that the village reached out to IDOT, and he personally discussed the issue with Johnson. But as of Sept. 23, the village hasn’t received any commitment from the state. 

In recent years, many municipalities have been shifting toward a multi-faceted approach to tackling illegal drug use, offering social services alongside enforcement. Hoskins said he wasn’t opposed to providing social services to homeless individuals. noting that Forest Park Police Department currently has a counselor under the auspices of the Proviso Township police crisis worker program. But given that the village’s resources are limited, he said, they decided to focus on enforcement. 

“Mostly, we’ve addressed it from the public safety standpoint,” Hoskins said, adding that he believed that Oak Park and Proviso townships were better equipped to handle the issue from the social services standpoint.