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Officials hope to start conversation with Homeless Awareness Week

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Jake Magee
Sunday, November 19, 2017

JANESVILLE—City officials have spent hours debating how to best help homeless animals. At least a couple of them have expressed concern about another vulnerable population in the city: homeless people.

For weeks, city staff and the Janesville City Council have been discussing the $125,000 set aside for animal control in the city's proposed 2018 budget.

Residents have weighed in passionately, sometimes advocating the city spend even more to ensure stray animals are cared for, City Manager Mark Freitag said.

"But I haven't heard much conversation at all about the homeless people, the human beings, in our community," he said. "I find it intriguing, but I also find it sad."

"We've really expended a lot of energy about animal control, and we don't talk about homeless people at all," Councilwoman Sue Conley said.

Jessica Locher, Homeless Intervention Task Force chairwoman and associate director of local charity ECHO, might have an explanation.

"Homeless pets and children are unable to provide for their own basic needs, so people's heartstrings are pulled when they hear about these causes, which are noble causes," Locher wrote in an email to The Gazette. "The general public thinks homeless adults cause their own homelessness and can get out of it on their own, but that is an untrue stereotype."

For the first time, at Locher's request, the city council Monday recognized Nov. 11-19 as Homelessness Awareness Week to coincide with National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, which is the week before Thanksgiving.

Past awareness efforts have included "sleep out" events, during which participants hear testimony from homeless people and then sleep outside to experience what it can be like. The events weren't well attended, Locher said.

The council Monday also approved the 2018 action plan for the Community Development Block Grant and Rock County HOME Consortium, two funds that provide housing for Janesville's low-income residents. An action plan is required for Janesville to receive federal dollars to support these funds, according to a memo to the council.

Besides that approval, the declaration of Homeless Awareness Week entails no action. The only objective was to raise awareness of homelessness in Janesville, but there's more that can be done, officials said.

Since 2014, Janesville taxpayers have spent $125,000 annually on animal control, which includes rounding up homeless pets and reuniting them with owners or holding them until they're adopted.

No local tax dollars are spent to help Janesville's homeless, Freitag said.

"My question is, what does that say about our community when we're willing to spend a lot of money to police up homeless cats and dogs, but the city taxpayer provides no money to GIFTS Men's Shelter, the YWCA, to Project 16:49, and the list goes on?" Freitag said Wednesday on WCLO's "Your Talk Show."

"I think it's a fair question to raise," he said.

Freitag later clarified with The Gazette that he's not necessarily advocating the city spend local dollars on the homeless, but with all the conversation around animal control, there should also be one around human homelessness, he said.

Conley agrees it's a worthwhile discussion. Some cities pay for homeless shelters, attorneys and other resources for people fighting evictions, she said.

"We could decide we (as a city) want to do something to help the homeless," Conley said.

Conley worked for years in nonprofit organizations, including YWCA Rock County, which provides shelter to female domestic abuse victims.

She was involved in forming the Homeless Intervention Task Force, a collection of people and organizations looking to address homelessness in the area. The issue is close to Conley's heart, and she's beginning to explore it further as a city council member.

"I think we have a lot to learn. We've only just begun," she said.

Locher said the city already does a lot to help Janesville's homeless and low-income population.

Several passionate city staff members regularly attend meetings about homelessness and help allocate federal aid dollars. With the city's help, ECHO alone receives $40,000 to $50,000 annually for emergency rental assistance, Locher said.

"We're very thankful to them," she said.

Still, money is always an issue, and local agencies would be open to receiving local taxpayer funding, Locher said.

Stephanie Burton, executive director of GIFTS Men's Shelter, said the shelter gets its money from donations, fundraisers and private grants. Officials have made the decision not to ask for government funding for a couple of reasons.

GIFTS Men's Shelter is a "Christ-centered ministry," and there could be restrictions on what the organization would be allowed to do with government money. Such funding can also be unreliable, Burton said.

"Government funding can be here one day and gone the next. We don't ever want to be reliant on something like that to provide the services we do," she said.

Burton said the best thing residents can do to help is get educated. The best way to do that is by volunteering, she said.

GIFTS Men's Shelter is 90 percent volunteer-run. Last year, the ministry logged more than 29,000 volunteer hours, Burton said.

"We would not be able to function without our community," she said.



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