50 turn out in West Baraboo to debate homeless shelter

March 19, 2019

About 50 people packed into the West Baraboo Village Hall last week to voice their opinions about a proposed homeless shelter near Haskins Park at a village board meeting, despite the board not being scheduled to take up action on the issue.

The village Plan Commission hasn’t sent a potential zoning code change to the board that would allow such shelters. Instead, members voted March 7 to wait until the village zoning administrator can provide more information on the issue before deciding whether to recommend it.

At the commission meeting, Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter representatives advocated to change zoning code to allow homeless shelters as conditional uses in R-1 districts in the village. That change could allow the nonprofit organization to open a shelter in the West Baraboo Church of God on Shaw Street, where church leaders have offered the group a rent-free space.

Currently, the village doesn’t allow homeless shelters.

Board President David Dahlke asked attendees Thursday to comment only on whether they favor the zoning code change, not on any particulars of the shelter. He said he’d give more weight to the opinions of West Baraboo residents.

The Rev. Lisa Newberry of First Presbyterian Church in Baraboo opened the comments.

“My heart just cannot accept that it is illegal for a church to help the needy of its own volition and using its own and other private resources,” she said.

About 30 members of the public — mostly from Baraboo or West Baraboo, but some from surrounding communities — offered their opinions, with those in favor of the proposed shelter outnumbering those against by about a 3-1 margin.

Ronald Ballweg, who lives near the Church of God, said he opposes the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter’s proposal but would be fine with the church — alone, without help from a second party — taking in a couple of families at a time if they were alcohol-free. He said the village doesn’t have the resources to deal with a shelter as proposed, suggesting it would cost taxpayer money to clean up Haskins Park and would require a police force that the village doesn’t have.

“How do we regulate this? If something goes wrong, who do we blame? Who’s going to take responsibility?” Ballweg asked. “I think this village is too small to handle something like this.”

He erroneously called the shelter organization a business; it’s a nonprofit organization, meaning none of its potential earnings can benefit a private shareholder or individual.

Proponents talked about their own experiences with homelessness, some as nurses or volunteers who have worked with people without homes. Susan Robinson, a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul in Baraboo, said homeless people come to the thrift store every day for assistance and she can only help with temporary hotel vouchers or by sending them to organizations outside of Baraboo that are usually already at capacity.

“We’re not educating the homeless, and that’s what they need,” Robinson said. “My understanding from the (shelter) board: They’re going to be there to advocate for these people to move them along, not to keep them in a hotel.”

Renee Greenland, a member of the shelter board, said she was born a homeless orphan and now works with youth in the foster system. She also serves on the board of directors for the Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care, which works to address homelessness across the state. Her mission, she said, is to advocate for victims and survivors of homelessness and abuse.

“As the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter board endeavors to open a safe, secure, trauma-informed 24-hour, year-round shelter with intensive case management, wraparound services and stringent shelter standards, I will personally bring five years of formal training in homeless systems and shelter operations to the table as the board member with lived experience,” Greenland said.

West Baraboo resident Jason Baumgartner sent an email to the village board and plan commission expressing opposition to a shelter being located in his neighborhood. He noted that he would petition against the proposal to “protect the park.”

“I have compassion for the less fortunate that need shelter, but there is and has been other options in the city of Baraboo,” Baumgartner wrote. It’s an idea that was echoed by other commenters.

However, the Rev. Dave Mowers, the shelter board president, has said the group exhausted all other options, finding nothing affordable that would work for its purposes.

Another person suggested that the park would become overrun with drug addicts if a homeless shelter was put in nearby.

“If you build it, they will come,” she said, referring to homeless people. Others responded that homeless people already live here, including sometimes in Haskins Park.

Mowers noted the organization expects to have to meet permit requirements and performance standards if the village amends zoning code to allow shelters.

A vote against the change “says it should never be OK to operate a homeless shelter in West Baraboo anywhere. Ever,” Mowers said. “Your no vote is not a vote for an alternate location, it is a vote that says no shelter ever. It is a vote that turns its back on those in need.”

Dahlke said the village board will hopefully have a recommendation from the plan commission by next month’s meeting. He said he agreed with many of the points both for and against the shelter.

“It’s a tough, tough decision,” Dahlke said. “But I think we’ll make the right decision, you know, based on the Baraboo area and what we need here.”