Our Views: City of Janesville should collaborate to care for homeless men

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gazette reporter Neil Johnson is no stranger to the homeless and their problems. In 2013, he spent a winter workweek experiencing “homelessness” as part of his yearlong series, “The Poor Among Us.”

Johnson revisited the issue with a story Monday that revealed a gap in summer services for men living on Janesville’s streets.

From October through April, homeless men sleep at churches rotating services in the GIFTS charity. In recent years, the men also visited The Shelter, a daytime drop-in center that Mike Tearman operated year-round in the Fourth Ward.

The men couldn’t, however, sleep at the shelter. Tearman clashed with the city when he opened in 2010. His building didn’t meet code for overnight guests. He had an electrician working without a permit.

The city looked like the bad guy, but Tearman had no one to blame but himself.

Shelter neighbors complained about thefts, vandalism and campfires and human feces in backyards. Some criticisms might have been overblown, and neighbors couldn’t attribute all of the problems to Tearman’s guests.

Tearman kept operating as a day shelter, using proceeds from his resale shop to give homeless men a place to socialize and get out of the elements. The Shelter closed recently, however, leaving men such as Bernie Baldwin and John Panos, whom Johnson interviewed for Monday’s story, back on the streets most hours, day and night.

From 8 a.m. to noon, they can visit a year-round resource center at 409 E. Court St. that GIFTS opened last fall. The center offers some food, clothing, counseling and help finding jobs.

Tearman is a former GIFTS board member who was asked to leave because of differences in operating philosophies and opinions about following rules. Despite that, he praises GIFTS and says its resource center duplicated some of his services. He told Johnson that closing The Shelter wasn’t about money. He doesn’t expect GIFTS to fill the resulting gap. Rather than one charity doing it all, he suggests a collaborative effort.

Janesville’s House of Mercy shelters homeless women and families. Gale Price, city building and development services manager, says he and new City Manager Mark Freitag realize the lack of a year-round overnight shelter for men is a gap in services.

Janesville has empty buildings. Perhaps one could serve as a shelter. At a time when the city struggles to fill potholes, however, most residents likely would rather see money poured into streets than in housing the homeless.

Many homeless men have substance abuse problems, mental illnesses or both. They roam, loiter and occasionally get into mischief, making families and business customers uncomfortable. No one wants a shelter next door. Go to most any big city, and you’ll see homeless men sleeping in business doorways or parks and panhandling. Such scenes aren’t prominent here.

No one suggests all these men are outstanding citizens. Many made poor choices that led to their plights. Janesville, however, should show compassion and balance it against making shelter services so comfortable that they attract even more homeless men to the city.

GIFTS does a good job of striking that balance while steering the homeless toward jobs and permanent housing. GIFTS also requires sobriety, a wise and positive rule. Panos told Johnson that the requirement kept him sober all winter. When the GIFTS shelter closed in spring and then The Shelter shut down, Panos returned to the bottle.

Though Tearman played loose with the rules, he’s a man of compassion who perhaps is right about how to care for Janesville’s small population of homeless men. Collaboration between the city and this community’s many fine charities might be the best approach to filling the gap in summer services.

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