Janesville says shelter must shut down by Tuesday

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Saturday, June 5, 2010
— The city of Janesville on Friday ordered that a new overnight shelter for homeless men close by 5 p.m. Tuesday until the director meets building codes and zoning ordinances.

Mike Tearman had operated a church and a drop-in day center out of the building, for which he received an occupancy permit and inspection.

The church left May 1, and Tearman turned the building into an overnight shelter the next day, said Gale Price, manager of building and development services for the city.

That changed the building’s use, so building codes must be met and a conditional-use permit issued, Price said.

The codes regulate accessibility, alarms and the number of beds relative to floor area, for example.

Meanwhile, neighbors have claimed an increase in vandalism and criminal activity since The Shelter Fellowship & Outreach for men opened at 407 W. Van Buren St.

Burdette Erickson, spokesman for the Old Fourth Ward Committee, on Tuesday dropped off a list of concerns to officials at City Hall, the Janesville Police Department and The Janesville Gazette.

“The hope was that city staff would have a further understanding of how serious the problem is in the neighborhood and the effect it is having on the quality of life in our neighborhood. We have always felt exposure is the best way to solve a problem,” Erickson said.

Assistant City Manager Jay Winzenz said police are looking into the neighbors’ concerns.

Tearman said, “There are no code violations at his building.

“I’m compliant. They’re trying to say there’s a zoning issue. It’s zoned commercial. But they’re defining me as a homeless shelter, he said.

“These guys are not homeless. They have a home here. We have a shelter, an outreach and fellowship. It’s a mission,” he said.

Price said a change in use of a commercial building requires an inspection and permit. Because Tearman has not had the building inspected and received the permit, there’s a building-code violation.

Tearman rented the building, owned by SLMHR of Milton, on Jan. 4.

Shelter need

Tearman said the bad economy made the opening of an overnight shelter necessary.

“We’ve served over 40 men, ages 19 to 70, in the first 30 days since we’ve been open,” he said.

Paul Benish, treasurer of God is Faithful Temporary Shelter, a rotating shelter for males in city churches that operates October through April, acknowledged the need.

“When we run the GIFTS shelter during the winter months, what we started to see this year were kind of a new breed of guys—folks who’ve never been homeless before, had jobs and were able to retain their residences … that needed services because of the economy and job loss with no place to turn to. Having that safety net was vital for them,’’ he said.

Whether Tearman’s shelter is filling that need, Benish couldn’t say.

“I don’t know. I’m not familiar with how he’s operating that shelter,’’ he said.

“Anything that helps the guys is a good thing because there is a need there,” Benish said. “But I don’t know if it complies with the city’s requirements, and I don’t know how neighbors feel.’’

Benish also emphasized that the new shelter is not part of the GIFTS ministry.

“We are in no way associated with that overnight shelter,” he said.

“Some churches and volunteers may have been contacted by Tearman and may have been given the impression that he is working with or through GIFTS. That is not the case,’’ Benish wrote in a year-end wrap-up letter to volunteer church coordinators for GIFTS.

Tearman, a licensed jail chaplain and an employee of Community Action, lives across the street from the new shelter. He was involved with GIFTS for three years and served on its board, he said. He no longer is associated with GIFTS.

“He was asked to leave at the beginning of this year and prior to his taking the day center into an overnight shelter. We had a difference in operating philosophy and a difference in opinion of how we should follow the rules of GIFTS,’’ Benish said.

Who does shelter serve?

Tearman said shelter occupants go through an intake process. They do not have to be homeless, jobless or friendless to be served at his center, which operates with a volunteer staff. It has 21 beds on the first floor and offers food provided and brought in by the community. It also connects men with volunteer opportunities and potential jobs.

The shelter does not accommodate those with physical or mental disabilities and does not allow drugs, alcohol or smoking in the building. Men with criminal backgrounds are referred to alternative programs for help, and police are contacted when necessary, he said.

“If a criminal offender comes to me, and it’s late at night, I might be able to let him bed down for the night, then move him to better resources equipped for him,” Tearman said.

Still, some neighbors are concerned about the number of men at the shelter and whether rules and a curfew are being enforced. They claim they have noticed an increase in vandalism and criminal activity since the shelter opened.

Neighbor concerns

Teresa McKeon, who has lived in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood for 14 years, said her family had only one or two instances of vandalism on their South Jackson Street property until May.

When the shelter opened, she said, problems began. The family’s picket fence was broken—kicked off posts—and remains of small campfires were found behind their house and garage, she said.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,’’ she said.

Tearman said her claims are nonsense and unfounded.

“The facts are not there. There is no evidence that would support that,” he said.

A call to a police department patrol supervisor found no incidents reported this year for the shelter’s address.

“I went through every entry that we had, and I did not see one complaint under that address,’’ said Sgt. Terrence Sheridan.

But, he added, “that doesn’t mean people haven’t called in concerning that place.’’

Erickson acknowledged he and other neighbors have not filed official complaints with police.

“Some people didn’t realize (the problem) was so widespread, and then as neighbors began to talk, they began to find other things that had happened. One person that suffered the most (damage) is now willing to and going to be talking to the police,’’ he said.

Neighbors said that gas has been stolen from cars and that problems are worse closer to the shelter. Piles of feces were found in a backyard where children play; other neighbors found their car trunk and doors open in the morning and the car stripped of its valuables. Mail has disappeared from mailboxes, and some residents fear for their safety, Erickson said.

In total, 13 concerns of vandalism and criminal activity were listed in the information that Erickson provided to city officials, police and the Gazette earlier this week.

What’s next?

Erickson said he and the Old Fourth Ward Committee are anxious for the city to act.

“We believe the city is working on this issue and will resolve the problem. We’re a little bit impatient with this going on because we don’t believe the shelter was opened legally and that it violated certain restrictions,” Erickson said.

Tearman said complaints and concerns should come to the shelter.

Erickson explained why they haven’t.

“We fear retaliation, and we’re finding he (Tearman) isn’t the type of gentleman we could work with. I am aware of so many things he has stated that are not true,’’ he said.

For example, Erickson said, Tearman told a city council member that a local church was providing showers for his men. Erickson said he spoke with the church’s pastor, who knew nothing about the supposed arrangement and said the church had no showers.

Three recommendations from the Old Fourth Ward Committee were forwarded to the city council Thursday after the group had an emergency meeting Wednesday night.

They are:

-- The shelter be closed.

-- If such a shelter is needed, it should not be located in a residential area.

-- Any future shelters of this size should be under capable management and closely supervised by the city.

Meanwhile, Ray Jewell, a shelter neighbor who is a trained pastor, substitute teacher and an adjunct professor for Judson University, continues to volunteer at the shelter almost daily.

He said the shelter and its residents are good neighbors.

“You couldn’t find a better bunch of guys.

“We are giving our time to help them help themselves. It (the shelter) is a benefit to them and an outreach to the community.”

Gazette Reporter Marcia Nelesen contributed to this story.

Last updated: 2:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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