Janesville's homeless see gap in services in summer

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, July 6, 2014

JANESVILLE--It was a bright, blue Saturday morning at Janesville's downtown farmers market. As families bustled among the dozens of produce stands along North Main Street, Bernie Baldwin, a homeless man, sat in a chair at a plastic bistro table and watched the crowds.

From the sidewalk, Baldwin set his bleary eyes on a man with a bag of fresh rhubarb. He swallowed the last of whatever liquid was in a paper McDonald's cup.

“I could use a little stalk of that rhubarb right now,” Baldwin said to himself. “I don't need a lot, just a little piece.”

Baldwin is among a group of chronically homeless men in Janesville whose lives are set on a seasonal toggle switch.

From October through April, Baldwin and about two-dozen other homeless men spend their nights at church-hosted shelters run through Janesville-based GIFTS, a nonprofit group that serves homeless men.

But in the spring, GIFTS' overnight services close. For the next six months, some of the men who use the shelter hit the streets, the woods or--if they're lucky--a friend's couch.

Officials acknowledge there is a gap in services for the city's male homeless population, despite charity groups' attempts to close it.

“It's a challenge. When you think about homeless men in the city, we don't really have a facility for them,” City Building and Development Services Manager Gale Price said.

Price said City Manager Mark Freitag has identified a gap in services for the homeless as part of a city needs assessment.     

“It's a shortfall of the community right now,” Price said. “What do we do with these guys? How can you facilitate their having some place to go?”

For men such as Baldwin, one local oasis softened the seasonal cycle of homelessness: The Shelter, a daytime drop-in center in the Fourth Ward, provided food, clothing and a place for homeless men to rest and recharge during the day.       

No more.

'Hole in Our Lives'

Mike Tearman, The Shelter's operator, says he's decided to close the drop-in center, which he's rented and run at 407 W. Van Buren St. for about four years.

Tearman cites frustrations over city zoning and fire code rules that have prevented The Shelter from operating as an overnight shelter. He said it's also been an uphill climb with neighbors who never warmed to having a bevy of homeless men in the neighborhood.

“I've got this building, and I can't help people. You're looking for validation for what you try to do, I guess,” Tearman said. “After a period of time, it gets kind of frustrating.”

Tearman told The Gazette that The Shelter closed effective July 1, although Fourth Ward resident Burdette Erickson said neighbors have seen crews moving furniture and items out of the two-story building for weeks, and the place has appeared closed since late April or early May.

John Panos, a local homeless man, said he and about 20 other homeless men got word in April that The Shelter was closing. He said some of the homeless men had boxes of belongings there they haven't been able to get.

“It's left a big hole in our lives. Tearman's place was a place to go for some respite during the day. It wasn't fancy. People would just talk to you. You weren't getting rained on or sitting out in the heat,” Panos said. “Now, we don't even have that respite.”

The Shelter had been barred since 2010 from allowing people to sleep there because it lacked a conditional-use permit to run as an overnight shelter. The building did not have approved code upgrades required for people to sleep there, including sprinklers, Price said.

Price said the city ticketed Tearman last fall after police suspected he let a person stay overnight at The Shelter. The city later dropped the ticket because it couldn't prove the person had actually slept there, Price said.

Tearman, who fueled some operations at The Shelter with proceeds from a resale shop he runs, said his decision to close The Shelter had nothing to do with money. But he said he thought some of The Shelter's dayside services were being “duplicated” by GIFTS.

Last fall, GIFTS opened a year-round daytime resource center at 409 East Court Street. Homeless men can come in from 8 a.m. to noon weekdays. The center offers personal counseling and job-hunting services to homeless men along with some food and clothing.

“It really was hard to chuck The Shelter down,” Tearman said. “But after GIFTS opened up their (year-round) resource center last year, it wasn't so hard. I knew then they'd at least get the men a meal.”

Tearman said he admires the work GIFTS and other organizations do. He doesn't expect GIFTS to instantly backfill where he's leaving off.

“I don't think one group can take care of it all. I don't think that's the case. It has to be a collaborated effort,” he said.

A volunteer caseworker at GIFTS said the group is examining what could be done now that The Shelter is closing. GIFTS Director Stephanie Burton could not be reached for comment.

Tearman acknowledged his center's closure has opened up a bigger gap for homeless men this summer: one from noon until the next dawn.  

“There is a sadness to think that below The Shelter, there's hardly nothing but the streets,” he said.

Now, The Bottle

On a recent, rainy Wednesday morning, Baldwin and Panos came into the GIFTS center to get dry clothes, coffee and a glass of milk. They'd both spent a few nights at a friend's house, but the arrangement had dried up. Both planned to spend Wednesday night and the next several nights on the streets.

By early afternoon, Baldwin and Panos were outdoors and downtown. They'd scored a small bottle of vodka and were drinking it in the rain. 

Both men, who are in the mid-50s, admitted they have struggled with alcoholism. Baldwin, who works off and on as a mover, has been homeless on and off for several years. He calls himself “a drunk.”

“I just want to be honest about it. I just want to tell the truth,” Baldwin said.

Panos, who's been homeless since 2009, has stayed at GIFTS' overnight shelter sites the last several winters. GIFTS won't allow people who have been drinking or using drugs to stay overnight. Fail a breathalyzer test at check-in, and you can't stay.

Under GIFTS' stringent rules, Panos said, he stayed sober all winter. He said when he's at GIFTS, he starts to feel like he's gaining momentum in his life.

“It's kind of like they save you,” he said.

Then comes spring and the annual closing of GIFTS' overnight sites. Then, this year, word came that The Shelter was closing. Panos said it felt like a dark veil dropped down.

Then came the bottle. 

“You know except for a few hours, we're outdoors now. It gets you down. You've gotta find some way to dull that,” Panos said. “This is not easy, and it gets harder every year. Homelessness is a young man's game. We ain't that young, you know?”

Baldwin and Panos showed a Gazette reporter some spots where the homeless sleep in the summer, including the North Parker Drive parking deck and nooks and crannies along the river walkway behind North Main Street.

“You try to stay out of the way, and when you get rousted by the police, you just get up and leave,” Baldwin said. “You don't want to go to jail. You just want to sleep. That's all.”

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