City wrestles between downtown image, humanitarian aid
Members of the Stevens Point Plan Commission were faced with a decision Monday, Dec. 7, when Evergreen Community Initiatives, a humanitarian branch of the Evergreen Church of Stevens Point, submitted a request to use the Franciscans Downtown building on Main Street as a temporary warming shelter for the homeless.
The shelter would operate from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the frigid period of the year.
“Several people have stepped up and have been raising money for this for a long time,” said Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza. “I know members of the Police Department, even myself, have raised money for this over the summer. They didn’t have a place then. I think it’s a good idea, I know several people who think it’s a good idea as well.”
While using the Franciscan’s building as warming center seemed like an easy decision for many who attended the Monday meeting, an owner of Five Rings Martial Arts, the business immediately adjacent to the Franciscans Downtown, objected.
“Since the Franciscans have started their service to people downtown, I’ve noticed a dramatic uptake of homeless people in the downtown area,” said Scott Decker, owner of Five Rings Martial Arts. “Having the Franciscans next door has been, for lack of a better word, a burden on me since this started. I’ve had to call the police numerous times for loiterers, for people being loud and disruptive outside my studio.
He said the homeless gather behind the Franciscans building during the day, which is where his customers drop their children off for practice.
“There are lots of people coming downtown with no intention of spending money who are scaring away people who would intend to come down and spend money, so I don’t see how this fit works with any kind of revisioning downtown Stevens Point,” Decker said.
“When you have a noble cause, when you are doing what’s right, sometimes other things have to be put aside, especially because this is a temporary situation,” said Sally Topinkas. “I’m not a business person but I understand and I’m sensitive to those needs, but I think this is maybe a good teaching moment for people in our community that the real world includes homeless people.”
“I can understand the concerns of the business owners. However, as a former staff member of the Salvation Army, I will tell you that the homeless people go from the Salvation Army to the downtown area regularly because it’s a convenient location,” said Connie Schwitzman, one of the volunteers with Evergreen. “I can go down there any time of day and see people that I worked with at the shelter. It’s just the location. It’s the place to go. We have our library.
“The homeless people were going downtown before the Franciscan center was even created. So, we can’t use this as an excuse, ‘oh now the homeless people are coming down there.’ They’ve been down there for years,” she said. “So having the warming center in that location is not going to make an effective change.”
“I think this plan is a fantastic plan. Now, whether or not it’s an ideal location is another question. But these homeless people they are referring to downtown have nothing to do with this warming center, it isn’t even open. It hasn’t been approved yet. The homeless people that everyone’s complaining about are already there, now let’s get them warm,” said Barb Jacob, a Stevens Point business owner.
“One of the concerns I have with (the proposed warming center) is it is around the biggest concentration of bars in our area,” said Shaun Morrow, District 11 alderperson.
“This is all feel-good stuff, but as someone else said, it all kind of boils down to business,” said Andi Oppermann, owner of the Companion Shop on Main Street. “We as a community have spent a lot of money already investing in our downtown and I tell you it’s really working. We’ve been doing great and I think if there’s a need, we have to fill that need. But is this the right location?”
Evergreen coordinators said the warming shelter is not meant to be a permanent service for the homeless population.
“Since the beginning of April, we’ve been working with 97 people who have been sleeping outdoors with nowhere else to go. We help connect them to resources like the Rapid Rehousing Program and other resources that are needed to help get them on their feet,” said Tiffany Krueger, co-chair of Evergreen Community Initiatives.
“In being connected to these individuals, we are noticing that the length of homelessness can be anywhere from one night to a few months, depending on their situation,” Krueger said. “We are anticipating the warming center to be occupied by anywhere from two to six people.”
The conditional-use permit, if approved by the Common Council, will expire on March 1 with the possibility of a 30-day extension depending on weather conditions.
Occupancy would be restricted to the first floor, and the basement of the building would be off limits. Also, Franciscans would need to make minor renovations to bring the building up to fire and safety codes.
Additionally, as part of Evergreen’s rules, once the individuals are in the warming shelter, they are in for the night. No one will be allowed to step outside for a smoke or come and go from the building.
“The warming center is not a house for these individuals, nor will it be a storage facility for people’s items. We simply offer a chair for people to get out of the cold and out of the elements on cold Wisconsin winter nights and continue to connect people with resources that get them on their feet,” Krueger said.
“We’re talking about a service that’s been needed and has been needed for a long time,” said Rev. Anne Edison-Albright, pastor of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Stevens Point. “For a long time the organizations have been kind of looking at each other across the table asking ‘OK, who’s going to do this?’ Then enter Evergreen and enter Tiffany.
“I need to say a few words about Tiffany. She knows the people who are homeless in this area by name, and when she’s sharing stories about them, she doesn’t name them – because that would be against their privacy – but says ‘my friends, my homeless friends,’” Edison-Albright said. “That’s not a euphemism. That’s real.
“We’re talking about the central location in downtown Stevens Point as being a ‘problem.’ I see it as a gift to our community,” she said. “There’s been research lately that has shown the people who are most generous to people in need are actually other people in need and people of greater means actually don’t give as high of a percentage. Unless those people of means live in a place where they encounter people in need in their daily lives.”
“Stevens Point has a big heart, and that includes people in business, service agencies, churches and the Common Council,” said Leo Jacoby, a volunteer at the Franciscans Downtown. “As a volunteer I’ve learned that homeless people have names and I don’t think of in a category because I can address them by their name. And that is the only way I know when real community happens, when we don’t use categories – business, academia or whatever our categories are. We know people, we know their names and we know their stories and I think it’s so important that Stevens Point has a big welcome mat and invite each other to know each other, know our stories and come together.”
“Boy, this is a tough one. I was able to sit down with (Evergreen organizers) the other day and ask them a lot of questions,” said Mary McComb, District 9 alderperson. “I’m also a downtown business owner, I’m pretty far from the Franciscans, but I know (downtown business owners) and they’re all good people.”
McComb said there is a tension regarding the location of the homeless people. That the issue is less about whether or not to help them, but where to set up places to help them.
“We have people who believe that homeless people should be visible because they are in fact part of the community, they’re just people who don’t have any homes, and we know they aren’t necessarily stereotypes, although there are some stereotypical behaviors that people have observed,” McComb said. “Some people here have said these people are a gift to the community, and I can see that, but I can also see it from a small business owner’s perspective who’s trying to make a living from their small business.
“I’ve done a little bit of traveling and I’ve been in some pretty vibrant downtowns around the world, some of the most vibrant downtowns I’ve been in are full of homeless people,” McComb said. “It’s new for Stevens Point. I grew up here. When I talked to Tiffany I realized, ‘oh man, there are really homeless people sleeping outside.’ I hadn’t really processed it. So, I’m really torn about this.”
Evergreen Community Initiatives organizers had originally hoped to launch in November, but were unaware of some of the red tape processes they needed to go through to do so, such as obtaining a conditional-use permit.
In a scramble, Evergreen worked with city officials, the Salvation Army of Portage County and the Stevens Point Police together to find shelter for the homeless on dangerously cold nights until it could get a conditional-use permit this month.
“We did not get the application in time for our November round of meetings,” Wiza said. “So they could not open on Nov. 1, as they had hoped. But we worked with them, staff worked diligently with them, telling them exactly what they needed to do, and we got it on (the agenda) as soon as we could.”
The Stevens Point Common Council will consider the conditional-use permit at its regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14.