The West Baraboo Plan Commission voted Thursday to wait until the village zoning administrator can provide more information before deciding whether or not to amend zoning code to allow homeless shelters in some districts.
The decision came after commission members questioned leaders of the group requesting the change in order to open a homeless shelter in the West Baraboo Church of God on Shaw Street. Currently, such shelters aren’t allowed anywhere in West Baraboo.
The Rev. David Mowers, president of the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter, said the organization petitioned to change zoning code to allow homeless shelters as conditional uses in R-1 districts in the village because there are limited spaces available that could accommodate its purpose at a price it can afford. The church, led by the Rev. Derick Bacon, recently offered to allow the homeless shelter to occupy part of its building rent-free.
The Church of God “really is about the only option that we’re aware of in town, and we have done our homework to try to find a different place,” Mowers said.
Such a zoning change would apply throughout R-1 districts, which are single family residential districts, and not just to the specific church, said Village Attorney Julia Potter.
“So, Plan Commission, at this point, you are thinking big picture,” Potter said. “Which zoning districts have the kind of uses that are compatible with homeless shelters, should they be permitted or conditional uses, those sorts of things. What you’re not doing tonight is approving or disapproving any particular homeless shelter project in any particular location.”
Despite the meeting’s purpose, members of the commission found it difficult to consider the zoning implications with Village Engineer Tim Mikonowicz absent due to a family emergency. Citizen appointee Gary Kowalke indicated reservations about allowing a homeless shelter in a residential zone.
Discussion instead often turned to specifics of the homeless shelter, such as if there would be 24-hour, full-time staff — Mowers said there would if the village allows — and how organizers would screen for sex offenders and violent criminals — through online state court records and sex offender registries, Mowers said.
“That’s pretty basic, though,” said commission member Dennis Parsons. Mowers said the organization is open to considering further screening.
During the following public comment period, six of the roughly 17 attendees spoke on the issue — both for and against — many breaking the rules on time limit, form and topic that Chairwoman Claire Barnett repeatedly emphasized.
One concerned citizen asked direct questions of Mowers and Bacon, well exceeding her three minutes. She suggested the state court system wouldn’t be an extensive enough screening because it wouldn’t catch criminal histories from outside the state, and she indicated concern with the shelter’s proposed location being across the street from Haskins Park.
Mowers said they would check neighboring states’ databases, as well as states from where individuals come. He earlier had acknowledged the concerns about its proximity to the park, noting that there are already homeless people who use the park.
“Currently, those folks have no services, there’s no plan to get them out of the park,” Mowers said. “What we would hope is that our presence on that corner would enable us to have a safe and attractive place where people would want to come — if their choices were the park or there — and that we could put them in touch with services and hopefully move them on from the park permanently into transitional housing or some other kind of housing situation.”
Another person said there were too many entities trying to work together on the shelter. He suggested the church should open a shelter by itself, so “someone is liable” if anything goes wrong. He also said some people want to be homeless and would take advantage of the shelter. Other concerns he noted include a possible increase of drugs in the area and the village not having its own police force.
The other four, including Pastor Karen Hofstad of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Pastor Lisa Newberry of First Presbyterian Church, spoke in favor of the shelter, noting that homeless people are often “just down on their luck” and aren’t necessarily dangerous. Newberry said the impromptu shelter her church provided during the coldest week this winter ran with no problems.
“We are feeling much safer with homeless people living inside our church building, comfortable, tracked, fed, cared for,” rather than outside under the church building, Newberry said.
Renee Greenland of Baraboo, who serves on the homeless shelter board, said she has experienced homelessness and was “very close” to harming herself in that difficult time.
“Many of the mental health issues that we see in homeless people are actually caused by homelessness itself, in part, added to the trauma that you see that people who become homeless are dealing with ... almost across the board,” Greenland said, also exceeding her time.
Village Trustee Jim Allen asked how the shelter would address people with “major mental health problems,” to which Mowers said they would use county services to help with people in the shelter while they’re there. If necessary, Mowers said they would refer individuals who appear to be a danger to themselves or others elsewhere, such as a county agency or law enforcement.
“What I can say and promise that we would not do is we would not just simply put a person like that in the park or put them out on the street where they’d be a danger to neighbors or to property,” Mowers said.
However, Allen returned to the topic later, asking Potter if the commission could write the code in such a way to prohibit people with serious mental health issues from utilizing a homeless shelter. Potter said she hasn’t researched that but it would likely be considered discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
If the village adopts the change to zoning code, it could still impose certain requirements be met before a homeless shelter is granted a permit to operate, such as performance standards or proximity to certain types of properties, Potter said.