Neighbors voice support, raise concerns at GIFTS meeting

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Jake Magee
July 22, 2015

JANESVILLE—Neighbors of a proposed permanent location for a men's homeless shelter voiced support and raised questions at a public meeting Tuesday night.

A few dozen God Is Faithful Temporary Shelter volunteers and employees, church members and neighbors gathered at 1025 N. Washington St., the site of the proposed shelter, to discuss plans for the property.

Right now, GIFTS operates by rotating weekly between 37 area churches. Turning the organization's recently acquired property into a permanent location would allow the shelter to grow and serve more men, officials said.

GIFTS hopes to get a conditional use permit and have the property re-zoned within the next two months to allow men to spend the night there. After that, the first step set for completion in October would be converting half the building into a resource center men could use throughout the day, executive director Stephanie Burton said.

The resource center allows men to learn soft skills to help them land and keep jobs. It helps them straighten out their lives, she said.

By the end of 2016, GIFTS would turn the rest of the building into a shelter with bathrooms, a kitchen and, eventually, more than 40 beds. Men at GIFTS currently store their possessions in totes that are shipped from church to church as the shelter moves. With a permanent location, men could store their things on site.

That doesn't mean GIFTS would allow men to make the shelter a spot to hang out or stay there forever.

“Our job is to get you the heck out of here,” GIFTS founder Paul Benish said.

After prefacing their comments with support for what GIFTS is doing, some neighbors expressed concerns that men turned away from the shelter for breaking the rules would then wander the neighborhood.

Benish said having a permanent shelter wouldn't change that homeless men already wander the neighbor. Sometimes they buy alcohol and go into the woods nearby and drink, he said.

“They were in your neighborhood whether you knew it or not,” Benish said.

Men who rely on GIFTS want it to succeed, so they would police themselves, Burton said.

The men wouldn't be allowed to leave the building until the morning after they check in at 6 p.m. each night. In the event of a problem, GIFTS has a close relationship with police, but the Janesville Police Department isn't worried.

Officer Chad Sullivan said the department wouldn't have extra patrols in the area because “it's not even a concern.” The rotating shelter doesn't have loitering issues with the men, he said.

During the day, when the resource center is operating, men would come with specific goals and leave with a destination and expectations in mind. There would be a designated smoking area in the backyard with a garden—all fenced in. Security cameras would be installed, and the shelter would be monitored 24/7, Benish said.

A couple residents pointed out the proposed shelter's close proximity to an elementary school.

“When there's children involved, you want that zero chance” of an incident, said a neighbor who declined to identify herself.

Benish said several churches that act as a shelter now have elementary schools in them. Registered sex offenders aren't allowed in GIFTS, either, he said.

Another concern was that property values would drop.

GIFTS board member Matt Prestil said the goal is to beautify the shelter, which is now a vacant building.

“We want to make this campus a plus to the neighborhood,” he said.

Many volunteers alleviated fears by sharing stories of the men's humanity, painting them not as the addicts or criminals they're stereotypically characterized as but as human beings who have fallen on hard times.

Officials feel now is the time to expand and help even more of those unfortunate men.

“The Lord touches everything we do,” Benish said. “What we've accomplished here at GIFTS can't be done by humans. There are too many miracles.”

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