Neither positively nor negatively, the Elkhorn Plan Commission advanced a proposal to bring a domestic violence shelter to the city’s downtown during a standing-room-only meeting Thursday.
The plan from New Beginnings APFV to turn a former medical building at 20 N. Church St. into what would become the county’s only domestic violence shelter now goes to the city council for consideration.
A vote to recommend the project favorably if certain conditions were met failed after a 3-3 tie. Then Mayor Howie Reynolds suggested sending the project to the council with a neutral recommendation, a motion that passed 4-2 after Reynolds switched his vote.
About 17 people spoke during the public comment period, with slightly more speaking in favor of than against the proposal. And some opponents emphasized they support having a shelter somewhere, just not at the proposed location.
At various points, Reynolds had to enforce certain rules on the energized crowd, such as when people could ask questions and to whom they should be sharing their thoughts—to the commission, not one another.
Some opponents questioned how the shelter fit within city ordinances and zoning. Reynolds and Tom Myrin, a council and commission member, expressed concerns with such details, too.
A lawyer with New Beginnings said this wasn’t just a legal question, but a moral one. Other advocates made similar points.
“It is vital. We need it in Walworth County,” New Beginnings Board President Janis Scharnott said. “It is shameful that we have no place for these folks to go.”
The effort comes in a county where three homicides since December have been acts of domestic violence no more than 5 miles apart from one another.
“Gone from this Earth are a beloved nurse, an energetic behavioral therapist and a friend of a female victim,” said Heidi Lloyd, executive director at New Beginnings. “They did not deserve this. No one deserves this.”
On Nov. 1, about a month before one of the homicides, New Beginnings officials appeared before the plan commission for the first time. Since then, Scharnott said they wanted time to address concerns from that meeting with more data and expert opinions.
New Beginnings contacted officials at 35 Wisconsin domestic violence shelters in February and March and asked a series of questions, including some to gauge safety concerns voiced by some residents.
In the last five years, the respondents said no domestic violence perpetrator or other person came to the shelter and acted violently, according to a letter Scharnott wrote that was submitted to the city.
One shelter reported a drunk person threw a rock at a window to get a victim’s attention but left immediately when police were called, the letter states. Some threats come over the phone, but callers don’t usually follow through.
“All shelters were very clear that in 5 years no weapons had been threatened or used at their location,” the letter states.
One question asked if any neighbors suffered injury or property damage, and each respondent said “no.”
All shelters had security, and many are public about their locations, which experts have said is not a problem because domestic violence usually happens in secrecy.
New Beginnings also submitted a report prepared by Thomas Hausner & Associates. The report, written by Hausner, who used to work for the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office, gives several security recommendations.
But the report also says having the shelter is worth whatever small risk might exist.
“Although the Domestic Violence Center may have a slight possibility of drawing the suspect, who the Victim is trying to avoid, the potential of harm could be far greater if we do not allow the Center to open so we can provide a safe haven for the Victims,” the report states.
Scharnott said the plan has support from local law enforcement officials. She read from a letter signed by Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen and Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell.
“For the greater community good, we feel the former Aurora medical building is an appropriate site,” she read. “And we are in favor of the city granting a conditional-use permit to allow the support center and shelter to open.”
As it stands now, the plan calls for four available units for women and children. Scharnott estimated it would be considered “full” if it housed about 12 people at one time.
Lloyd, the executive director, said this would make it one of the smallest shelters in Wisconsin.
Emergency stays at the shelter would range from one night to several weeks, depending on the need. New Beginnings would help attendees find temporary housing elsewhere and continue to offer support services.
A community petition supporting the project got 806 signatures—318 of which were from Elkhorn, Scharnott said.
One emphatic supporter was former Whitewater Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher, who shared a story of a friend with four kids who called her during a domestic violence situation.
She needed to flee and did not have a place to go.
“This is real. This is a real story. This happens every day,” she said. “We need this shelter.”
Reynolds said after the meeting it is too soon to take up the matter at the council’s meeting Monday, so the subject could come up at the next one.