City approves warming center at Church of The Intercession
A warming center for the overflow of homeless from the Salvation Army of Portage County’s Hope Center during winter months was approved by the Stevens Point Common Council Monday, July 19.
The Church of the Intercession will operate the warming center at 1417 Church St., Stevens Point. The center’s hours of operation will be 8:45 p.m. to 6 a.m. Guests of the center – three or four on average, organizers estimated – would be locked in for those hours and not allowed to leave.
In late Fall of 2015, Church of the Intercession, along with Evergreen Church Initiatives, had started the process to get approved for a temporary warming center at Franciscans Downtown, 1000 Main St., Stevens Point.
The request was made in haste and in the 11th hour to fill a need from overflow at the Hope Center as the winter’s chill was setting in and a need for more beds became apparent to Church organizers.
They were met with heavy opposition from neighboring businesses and some community members, as well as support from community members who thought the humanitarian benefit outweighed the concerns of public image. However, before the application could be acted on, the request was pulled for practical reasons.
To operate a temporary housing facility (an overnight warming center), Intercession and Evergreen would have had to make several infrastructure renovations to the Franciscans’ building to get it up to fire and safety codes, which would have cost upward of $5,000
Church organizers said it wouldn’t have been a smart investment of money for a temporary warming center, especially when the plan all along was to use the Church of the Intercession as its permanent location for the warming center.
A few months shy of a year later, Intercession returned with a permit request after it was able to make renovations to the Intercession church and get it up to warming center standards.
Some concern was raised by Stevens Point Plan Commission members about Intercession being located in a residential neighborhood and the affect a warming center might have on its neighbors.
Intercession Rev. Jane Johnson said it was her house directly across the street from the center’s entrance – where homeless tend to gather while waiting to get in.
Reid Rocheleau, Whiting, complained to the Council that it was too close to the St. Stephen Catholic School.
“This group is bragging that they accept sex offenders, and this lady (Rev. Jane Johnson) was saying everybody needs a nice home and a nice warm spot, well these sex offenders – the serious ones – don’t seem to be too concerned about their victims,” Rocheleau said.
“While the Evergreen Community may be sympathetic to the homeless that the Salvation Army won’t accept because of the seriousness of their offences or their behaviors – including some sexual offenders,” said MaryAnn Laszewski.
“These people are opening their doors to the rejects the Salvation Army won’t accept,” said Rocheleau.
He said the city should add it in to the conditional use language to restrict registered sex offenders from using the center.
However, his suggestion was ultimately pointless because state law already made those restrictions.
“If any of our offenders would end up going to the warming shelter drunk or high, they would go directly to jail, period. They would not have the opportunity to go in,” said Shaun Morrow, District 11 alderperson and manager of the Wisconsin Corrections Department – the state organization charged with overseeing and managing parolees, including all the sex offenders in Portage County.
The concern of sex offenders using the warming shelter is misinformed, Morrow said.
“All of our sex offenders are housed, the state pays for that … they also have GPS units. With that GPS they have what is called ‘exclusion zones’ which means if they go near a school, if they go to a daycare center, there is an immediate – and I stress immediate – warrant out for their arrest,” Morrow said.
In essence, the school itself would be the precluding factor barring the sex offenders Rocheleau referenced from using the warming center.
“Close to where the Intersession is there is a halfway house that the state pays $600,000 a year for and we do have sex offenders there. It has been there since 1974 and we’ve had no problems there in 45 years,” Morrow said. “The fearmongering about ‘oh, the sex offenders are going to be out there’ is just a ploy.”
Morrow said his office works so closely with local law enforcement and monitors registered sex offenders so closely, there is virtually no opportunity for them to be a danger to the public.
“The fear that sex offenders are going to come and stalk your kids is just a complete farce,” he said.
“As far as the school, that was one of the first thing we addressed. We took it to the school and the principal of the school said, ‘how can we get involved and help. We want our children to be a positive part of caring for people in the community,’” Tiffany Krueger, of the Evergreen Community initiatives.
“I’ve been working with the homeless in our community for years now and I’ve been tracking it … the Salvation Army has been full. We’re not talking about taking all the ‘rejects’ – these are human beings, first off – but the Salvation Army has been full and there have been people that have no other alternative,” Krueger said.
“This is why we’re doing this. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘hey, let’s do a warming center.’ This is something the United Way (of Portage County) came to us and said this is a need in our community,” she said.
Morrow said he is in constant contact with the Salvation Army and they have been full for a long time. There is a distinct need during winter months for a warming shelter.
Laszewski said she is more concerned about the neighbors’ ability to sell their homes without homeless people hanging around and bringing down the neighborhood’s image.
“If the Salvation Army doesn’t accept sex offenders and other deviant behaviors, we don’t need to endorse an organization that does and we don’t need to cater and invite them to our downtown,” Laszewski said.
Laszewski said the neighbors are more deserving of compassion than the homeless who would use the warming center.
“Here’s the thing, everybody is deserving of compassion – yes, I’m deserving of compassion as the person who lives next door – but I’d rather not live in any neighborhood that is unwilling to take care of the most vulnerable,” said Johnson. “How a community takes care of its most vulnerable is a telling sign of who that community is, because all people – regardless of their past, regardless of their living reality, regardless of their bad habits and their bad choices – all people are deserving of shelter, safety, food and water. Without exception.
“Evergreen Community Initiatives and Intercession Episcopal have come together to serve our brothers and sisters … We know that this endeavor will not be without stress and strain, no worthy effort is. But we are committed to one another and to this needed and important ministry,” Johnson said.
“In concept, I think it’s a great idea. Is there going to be some issues? Yes there will be. We’ll respond as best we can and we’ll be sure to remain in contact with them and make sure that they understand if they have issues that we keep the dialogue open and address it right away so it doesn’t snowball,” said Stevens Point Chief of Police Martin Skibba. “Obviously, anytime you start something new and fragile like this, that has to be taken into consideration.
“For myself, I will say – having a first-cousin I’ve arrested several times who is currently homeless in the city of Stevens Point – this is at least another option as opposed to us securing him in jail for a couple of weeks for him to find sobriety and do the cycle again,” Skibba said.
Skibba said he supports it, but the Council also need to be ready to pull the permit if things get too bad.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said he is confident Intercession and Evergreen organizers are fully aware of the potential troubles and inevitable hard times, but are well-trained and ready to handle those problems if and when they arise.