Overwhelming support for concept; location leaves bitter taste for many
By Brandi Makuski
City officials have given preliminary approval for a downtown warming center.
Meeting before a standing-room-only crowd, the Stevens Point City Plan Commission on Monday heard testimony from nearly 20 local residents including local clergy, downtown business owners and staff from Evergreen Community Initiatives, the group behind the warming center.
The warming center will house up to 15 people between the hours of 9 PM and 6 AM at Franciscans Downtown, a ministry outreach center located at 1000 Main Street. ECI had planned to launch the overnight housing option in November, but did not return the necessary paperwork for a conditional use permit- something required to run a temporary housing center in an area zoned for business.
“The city first heard of this proposed center through the media,” said Mayor Mike Wiza. “We hadn’t been made aware of the location request, so we contacted them right away.”
Wiza added the location was not ideal, and other city officials pointed out the space needed a lot of upgrades before it could legally be utilized as a nighttime shelter, to include building ADA-compliant bathroom facilities on the first floor and installation of an easy-exit panic bar for emergencies and carbon monoxide detectors.
Beyond the scope of needed improvements, several downtown business owners voiced their concerns over negative effects the center could have on the downtown area- an area many argued had only recently begun to flourish again following 2012’s redesign of the downtown square.
“This project is very noble, and it makes us great champions of humanity, their efforts are wonderful,” said J.D. Manville, owner of JadeCo Stamp & Hobby across the street from the Franciscans. “But in reality, downtown is becoming more vibrant, with more and more people. [ECI’s] intended use is not the highest and best use; it is not the right image for downtown.”
Stephen Decker, owner of Five Rings Martial Arts, said he’s already having problems with loiterers from the center, which is next door, and it’s affecting his business.
“The entrance to my building is 15 feet away from [Franciscans’] entrance, where the people will congregate before they’re allowed entrance into the warming center,” Decker said. “Already I’ve had homeless people at my building, peeking in at people while they’re working out and exercising. It’s been a huge issue for the comfort level of my students.”
Decker said he and his family donate money and food to ECI throughout the year but feels the location would be a detriment to downtown businesses.
“I cannot be more strongly opposed to this,” he said.
Andi Opperman, who owns the Companion Shop pet store across the street, also said she supports the center but the location is wrong.
“This is all feel-good stuff, but it all boils down to business,” Opperman said. “We have invested a lot of money in our downtown and I tell you, it’s really working. I think this is not the right location, on a Main Street that’s almost full right now.”
Opperman said she, too, sees homeless in the downtown area during the day and agrees there is a need.
“But the location is super, super bad,” she said. “In business, customers are very fickle; if you have tourists coming in and they see that…I know not all are homeless for drugs and alcohol, but some are and those are the ones that stand out. It can give the wrong impression of downtown; I’d hate to put us a step back.”
Several members of the ECI board, who say they’ve spent time doing homeless outreach in larger cities in Southern Wisconsin, insist the setup is just temporary.
Jasmine Maze says she became part of ECI after experiencing homeless herself several years ago.
“It doesn’t really matter how small your downtown is, that’s where the homeless go,” Maze said. “Everyone’s really worried about their business, but like we said, this is very temporary until we can move it. If I was a business owner downtown, knowing there’s already homeless [people] downtown every single day, I would like to know they’re inside and not outside roaming the streets at night trying to stay warm.”
Maze and others from ECI say the warming center will accept sex offenders and individuals who are intoxicated, unlike the Salvation Army and other temporary shelters.
“Nobody else will take sex offenders or those who are intoxicated,” said ECI’s Joel Besemer. “That’s why we’re needed.”
But that fact is also part of the problem for some on the city council.
Councilwoman Denise Mrozek, who represents the second district, said she had “serious concerns” about safety at the downtown location, arguing there’s potential for sex offenders or intoxicated individuals to sleep in the same room as a family with children who might have no other option for shelter on a given night.
She also questioned whether this location actually was temporary, and how great the need for such shelter actually was.
“A lot of people came up here tonight to speak and said those under the influence have no place else to go,” Mrozek said. “I’d like to hear some testimony on some numbers behind what the police actually see, and what the police have to turn away.”
Chief Marty Skibba told the commission his department typically encounters two to five homeless individuals each winter who fit into that category, and no one in need has ever been turned away in his 24 years on the force.
Shaun Morrow, alderman for the 11th district, also questioned the need for such a facility.
“A lot of our homeless have substance abuse or mental health issues,” said Morrow, who works full time for the department of probation and parole. “We have a lot of resources to help them; our community- for its size- has more resources than any other I’ve known.”
Morrow also said he worried about the center being located within, “the biggest concentration of bars in our area; that is a huge concern.”
Commissioners were ultimately swayed by the temporary status of the location.
“I’m not saying we wouldn’t be looking for approval at a different location, but we already have a permanent location,” said Cassandra Degroff from ECI. “Place of Peace is already a permanent location on Church Street, but it’s not up to code.”
Degroff said there was “extensive work” to be completed at that location, but the group hopes to have it up to code by next winter.
Degroff also pointed out current problems caused by the homeless had nothing to do with the group’s warming center.
“I think that’s more of a Franciscan thing because they’re open during the day,” she said. “Our hours overlap very little with business that operate down there. People congregate downtown because of the library.”
The plan commission voted 5-1 to approve the conditional use permit, with Commissioner Dave Cooper the lone dissent.
ECI members say they hope to have all the updates at the downtown center complete by Dec. 22- the soonest the center could open for overnight guests.
The permit must be approved by the full city council on Dec. 21.