Homeless people could legally sleep in their cars overnight in Palmer Park under a proposed ordinance change being introduced to the city council Monday night.
City ordinances prohibit sleeping in vehicles on public streets or in parking lots between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Police most often tell people to “move on” and find somewhere else to go, said Maggie Darr, assistant to the city manager.
The first reading of the ordinance Monday night is a procedural necessity to introduce the proposal to the council. The council will not discuss the measure or take action Monday.
Palmer Park emerged as the best location, Darr said, because it already has round-the-clock public bathroom access for travelers exiting nearby Interstate 90/39. Its parking lot also has ample spaces and is far enough away from neighboring residences.
Last summer, city staff and representatives from homeless support agencies such as ECHO and House of Mercy began meeting to find ways to help the homeless population. The group calls itself FOCUS, which stands for Finding Opportunities and Collaborating to Unite Services.
Safe overnight parking was something the group zeroed in on early. City Manager Mark Freitag mentioned the idea to a Gazette reporter in January after his annual State of the City address.
“Those service providers that we’re working with to address this issue brought this forward as being an ongoing issue for some of their clients,” said Darr, who is not part of FOCUS but is introducing the proposal to the council.
“They have a vehicle where they can be safe and warm overnight, but right now our ordinances restrict them from any sort of parking on public property.”
Overnight parking would not be the first idea FOCUS has turned into reality. Police officers have begun monthly outreach efforts, and the city in April transferred a tax-foreclosed home to ECHO to serve as a transitional living facility, said Jessica Locher, ECHO assistant director and FOCUS member.
The single-family home on South Fremont Street is being renovated and should be occupied by fall. A family will live there for about a year before moving to permanent housing, she said.
Nonprofits plan to meet with homeless people at the Palmer Park lot. It also could serve as an extra rest stop for Interstate drivers, Locher said.
FOCUS considered hiring a private security firm to oversee the lot, but it was too expensive. Instead, Janesville police will use security cameras and patrols to monitor the area.
The council could consider budgeting money in the future for full-time, on-site security.
The proposed ordinance change still would prohibit sleeping in cars overnight unless a sign indicates otherwise. If the Palmer Park experiment doesn’t work, the city would remove the sign.
If it’s successful and there’s a need for more overnight sleeping areas, city officials could expand it to other public parking lots, Darr said.
The proposal will be considered a success if it gives homeless people a safe, reliable place to sleep, which could provide them enough stability to improve other aspects of their lives, Darr said.
Success also means a safe place with minimal nuisance or public safety problems, she said.
“If we try this and it works, then that’s a benefit for the community,” Darr said. “If we try it and it doesn’t work, then it’s easy to undo.”
A public hearing on the ordinance change is scheduled May 28. The council could approve the measure on that date.