The standing-room-only crowd that filled the City Council chambers Wednesday night largely agreed that something needs to be done to help Janesville’s homeless population.
But the differences in opinion over how to help led to emotions and mild outbursts as those present discussed one proposal: overnight parking in Palmer Park for homeless people living in their vehicles.
The city held a community engagement forum so people could express their opinions on the idea, which would allow homeless people to sleep in their cars between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the lot in Palmer Park off Palmer Drive. Currently, nobody is allowed to sleep in a vehicle overnight anywhere in the city.
Right now, the plan would not include on-site security from Janesville police. Officers would instead monitor the area via security cameras.
Roughly 75 people packed the council chambers. A few carried yard signs reading “Save Palmer Park—No Overnight Parking.”
After some opening remarks from City Manager Mark Freitag, 32 speakers came one by one to a lectern. Each person had one minute to share their thoughts or ask a question to a six-person panel.
Reaction to the proposal was mixed. Some said the plan would be a first step to helping the city’s homeless community, even if it wouldn’t solve all the problems people face. Others were concerned it could lead to drug use or human trafficking or that it could make a vulnerable group of people even more prone to danger.
Police Chief Dave Moore, a panel member, said if the idea becomes reality and safety problems arise, he would have the authority to rescind the policy if it’s not working as intended.
Mary Plaut, who brought some of the yard signs, said homeless parking should be in a lot that is not in a park. Several others made the same point.
April Beach suggested the city hire a security guard to check people in and out of the lot. This would ensure protection for those who park.
Jim Kirschbaum recommended the city turn the proposal into a safe parking program, something that has been done on the West Coast. The program could have criteria to determine who can use the lot overnight, he said.
Allowing overnight parking in the Palmer Park lot—a location chosen because it has public bathrooms and was relatively far from nearby homes—has generated controversy since it was first introduced to the council in May.
Despite differing opinions, the forum remained mostly civil. A few people criticized the format because it did not allow for back-and-forth discussion with the panel. Groups applauded speakers with whom they agreed.
While some speakers were concerned about drug and alcohol use in a park frequented by children—CAMDEN Playground is adjacent to the lot—there was another speaker who stressed that those who would use the lot might be homeless families who fell on hard times.
Some people shared both views. They sympathized with the plight of the homeless population but thought Palmer Park wasn’t the place to try overnight parking.
Jeanne Carfora, the forum’s final speaker, said she was impressed to see so many people attend the meeting. That showed there are many who care about the homeless community.
But she challenged them to put their words into action. Otherwise, their opinions might come off as NIMBYism, she said.
The proposal now moves to the parks and recreation advisory committee, which will meet at 6 p.m. July 9. Committee meetings typically don’t include public comment periods.
Freitag said the committee could make changes to the proposal, including the location.
The council would then hold a second reading and public hearing at its meeting July 22.
As the forum wound down, Freitag displayed a slide showing various ordinances the city has modified in recent years. Some of those policy changes faced loud resistance before they went into effect, but many times, opponents’ concerns never materialized.
He advised the crowd not to let fear of the unknown dictate the city’s direction.
“The question the community of Janesville has to ask itself is how do we move the community forward? Do you move the community forward restrained by fear?” Freitag said. “Or do you move the community forward with hope?”