Visalia Planning Commission votes 2-1 to deny the appeal of St. Paul Episcopal Church’s permit to operate a warming center for the homeless
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
VISALIA – Last Wednesday night the Visalia Planning Commission gave the St. Paul Episcopal Church the green light to open their warming center at 120 N. Hall Street. The decision comes to the dismay of residents and business owners nearby who voiced their complaints over the homeless that inevitably hang around the neighborhood.
After hearing over two hours of public comment on Dec. 19 special meeting, vice chairperson Liz Wynn and commissioner Marvin Hansen voted to deny an appeal over the temporary conditional use permit to open the St. Paul warming center filed by Dr. Wayne Wundrum. The permit was administratively issued to St. Paul’s on Monday, Dec. 17.
Chairperson Brett Taylor voted in favor of the appeal, while fellow commissioners Chris Gomez and Sarrah Peariso were absent.
Wundrum, who owns Wundrum Chiropractic at 1414 Main St., near St. Paul’s immediately filed his appeal on the 17th which halted the opening of the center.
Wundrum was the first to address the commission during the Dec. 19 special meeting and said none of the surrounding neighbors are in favor of the warming center because of the homeless people that come into the neighborhood. Several neighbors went on to speak about break-ins and squatters that have been in the area in the past. Wundrum added that he did not understand why the City was not pushing for a different location than St. Paul’s.
“I would like to again suggest the Visalia parking area by Rawhide…the City has used it in the past a cooling center…I find it quite odd the City has not considered that… I don’t know if it’s a liability thing or what,” Wundrum said.
Wundrum had previously voiced his complaints to the Visalia City Council and submitted a letter to the City Manager Randy Groom on Dec. 12.
“I recently spoke in front of the City Council and expressed my concerns regarding unintended consequences and the creation of an unattractive nuisance that accompanied the Church’s warming center for the homeless last winter. As you are fully aware, I am not alone regarding those concerns,” the letter read.
During a Dec. 3 City Counil meeting, Wundrum was among a group of people to voice their concerns during the public comment. Mary Frances Bianco, owner of Flowers by Peter Perkins, 1420 W. Center Ave., said there was already a problem with homeless people trying to use restrooms and loitering and leaving needles around downtown doctor’s offices.
“I’m not against it, but I’m against where they are wanting to do it,” Bianco said.
Nancy Overstreet didn’t speak for, or against the warming center but did offer a possible solution. She said the city of Fresno has been experimenting with port-o-potties to keep people living on the street from using the restrooms at local businesses. She volunteered to head up a committee to look into the idea.
“There is a big problem with people urinating and defecating near businesses,” Overstreet said. “All of the fast food places are locking their bathrooms, and I don’t blame them.”
Wundrum said, during the Dec. 19 special planning commission meeting, the problem he sees most often is in the backyard of his office on Main Street. He said the homeless have broken into the backyard of his office and defecated overnight. Some have even slept there. But Wundrum is hardly the only person with a sanitation complaint.
During the City’s Council’s Dec. 3 meeting, City Councilmember Greg Collins said he also has an office in downtown and has dealt with the issue of homelessness on numerous occasions. He said homelessness continues to be among the top issues of concern for Visalia residents and the city spends millions each year in an effort to solve the problem, but it seems to be getting worse.
At its Nov. 19 meeting, the Visalia City Council authorized payment of $10,000 to the Kings Tulare Homeless Alliance to assist with funding a of short term winter warming shelter. As things turned out St. Paul’s was the beneficiary of all the money.
Kurt Browning, a nearby resident on Park Street said when the church opened the warming center last year more transients populated the neighborhood.
“We want these people to have a place to go and warm up but we can’t walk down the street without having a homeless person coming up to me, my wife and my kids,” Browning said.
Sandra Witten, who lives nearby the church said she felt safe when she first moved into the neighborhood, but now she’s fearful.
“It’s a good neighborhood and I was never afraid to walk down the alley, and now I am,” Witten said.
Brandy O’Brian, who added to the chorus of voices against the warming center, painted those going to the center with a broad brush at last Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s not just a mother looking for a warm place for her and her children. These people are drug addicts, a lot of them,” O’Brian said.
Warming up to solutions
Apart from operating the warming center Reverend Suzi Ward says that she lives on Santa Fe Trail in Visalia and is familiar with the types of problems homeless bring to neighborhoods. But she recognized there is not a long term solution to homelessness, and those without shelter need services.
“We need a better long term solution, and I’m sorry we have to do this here in your neighborhood,” Ward said.
Ward noted that most of the solutions residents and business owners want come down to money. St. Paul’s already hired a security guard for a 12-hour shift that consumes 60 percent of her budget. Residents say having a security guard for only half the day allows the homeless to loiter around the center, in the neighborhood. When it comes down to the dollars and center, despite the City of Visalia and the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance kicking in $10,000 each Ward says she is $40,000 short of what she needs for 24-hour security protection in addition to her other expenses.
Part of the problem Ward identified is she cannot control the homeless anymore than the police can if they are not breaking the law. Because the warming center is a low barrier shelter they let in nearly anyone in need. Ward explained the church serves homeless, children, mentally ill and people struggling with addiction. On the nights when they are open St. Paul’s allows those who are currently drunk or high so long as they are calm and not causing a disturbance. But she cannot stop them from leaving and defecating in the surrounding neighborhood.
“These people are adults. They make their own decisions. I can’t force them to go to a certain place. I don’t have that power and neither do you, really,” Ward said. “I just treat them with a lot of love and respect.”
Ward’s generosity has had a positive impact on Cheryl Mason’s life. Mason said she was homeless for 14 months and living in her car in Visalia, along with her cats. She could not be admitted to a shelter because she was not permitted to bring her cats. Mason was also not allowed to leaver her cats in the car and check on them periodically throughout the night.
“So, when Suzi opened the warming center she allowed pets and she let me check on the cats in the car at any time,” Mason said.
Since living in her car and visiting the warming center Mason has found housing, and even sits on the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance board as a member at large.
Open on conditions
Wynn said this was a heartfelt decision for her and she can see both sides. She recognized that homelessness is a national problem and there is not a national solution, and noted that right now it is up to local government to find ways to handle it.
“If you go anywhere in Visalia you will see the homeless…I will support this measure and I think the 35 degree measure is pointless…the [Visalia Rescue Mission] can’t do it all, they are at capacity,” Wynn said.
Hansen concurred over the 35 degree measure, but wanted to see an increase in security by two hours, one on each end of the shift, and clean up.
“I would be in support of extending the security by two hours, and I would be in favor of extending the clean up area. I don’t know how far you want to go…I think there should also be port-o-potties on site,” Hansen added.
The lone dissenting vote, Taylor said the stories of despair and recovery are heart-wrenching and heartwarming. But he does not like that the warming center decision came in as a temporary conditional use permit and not a permanent permit. Taylor said this is shaping up to be a problem into the future and would like to see it characterized as a permanent solution for now.
“I don’t want these neighborhoods to have to suffer everyday,” Taylor said.
Wundrum, or any other appellate has until 5 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 31 to file an appeal to the planning commission’s ruling. The appeal would be heard by the Visalia City Council. If an appeal is filed, the warming center would have to be closed until the Council renders their decision. There was not an appeal filed as of press time.