The controversy over whether to allow Janesville’s homeless to sleep in their cars seems no closer to resolution than it did when it began in May.
At the Rock Aqua Jays show in Traxler Park on Sunday night, opinions were mixed about the latest idea: Let them park in the Traxler Park parking lot.
“I’m not sure kids being around homeless people, or vice versa, is necessarily a good thing,” said Marcia Heck.
Heck worried the homeless would hang out in the park all day.
“I’m sure there are other places for them to go. Maybe they don’t know what (those places) are,” Heck said.
The city has shelters, which are usually full, with waiting lists.
Matt Arthur had no problem with making Traxler the site.
“I’d rather have them over here than at Palmer (Park),” Arthur said, referring to a previous proposal that received a lot of heat from neighbors.
“Because I live over at Palmer,” Arthur said.
“It’s not like they’re hurting anybody. It’s just a place for them to sleep,” said Stacey Wilkins, a longtime Aqua Jays fan.
“It’s better than sleeping under bridges,” Wilkins added.
Advocates say those forced to sleep in their cars are not who people often think of when they hear “homeless.”
“I’m not crazy about it. They could bring people here from other places,” said Kris Mikkelsen, reflecting on the comments of several others.
Those “other people” might bring trouble with them, was the idea.
“As long as they throw the garbage away … as long as the keep it neat and tidy,” said Dave Cornell, who also liked Traxler because police would have easy access.
A city committee recommended Traxler Park on Tuesday. Objections were raised immediately: What about the summertime events that Traxler hosts? What about the Rock Aqua Jays?
One person who has been closely involved in the problem of homelessness and the water-ski show team—both for decades—is Karen Lisser.
Lisser is executive director of Janesville’s ECHO charity, which provide services to the homeless. She’s also a longtime Aqua Jay. She runs the club’s “Boatique” store at the park.
The ski team hosts tournaments that can last three or four days, with activities running until midnight at times, Lisser said. During tournaments, vendors stay in tents at the park, and the lot where the homeless would park can be filled with boat trailers and other equipment.
The park also hosts an annual Renaissance fair, among other festivals, she noted.
Those activities are important to many in the city and bring in outside dollars, Lisser noted.
Indeed, several people a Gazette reporter approached Sunday were from out of town.
“We would not want to not have those events because spots are taken up by people sleeping overnight in cars,” Lisser said.
On the other hand, Lisser said some people who have opposed the parking idea seem to believe crime will follow. It’s not true, she said.
These are people who tend to not be involved in crime, Lisser said, and if people know police are watching over the area, as planned, criminals will not want to go there.
ECHO provides vouchers for such families to stay in local motel rooms, and sometimes families stay at the motels after the vouchers run out, using their own money, because it’s so hard to find an apartment in a city with a 1 percent vacancy rate, Lisser said.
People call ECHO every day, asking if rooms are open, Lisser said, and local shelters for the homeless also have waiting lists.
Lisser was not speaking for the Aqua Jays. Club President Gur Rothmaler Sr. said he has already written to the city council in opposition to the Traxler idea.
Rothmaler noted the overnight parking is slated to begin at 10 p.m.: “I guarantee you, people are going to be there before that.”
“I’m not saying homeless people are bad people, but sometimes they can attract (illicit activities), and that’s not conducive to family activities,” Rothmaler said.
“Granted, they need somewhere to go,” Rothmaler said, suggesting Lustig Park or a commercial parking such as the one in front of the defunct ShopKo store.
Jessica Locher, ECHO’s associate director, serves on the committee of city officials and social-service agencies that proposed the group parking plan. She said the people who would be sleeping in their cars are not the kind of people who would bring drug dealing.
They are people who lost their homes because of a medical emergency or a missed paycheck, she said, and they need a safe place to rest so they can work on finding housing or getting jobs.
“We totally know that’s not the solution,” Locher said of the overnight parking, “but we wanted to make sure there’s a safe place for them.”
People sleep in their cars now, even though the city prohibits it. Planners sought a place where about 25 cars could park for the night.
Under a 90-day pilot program, Janesville police would monitor the area with live-feed video from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Officials have said that if it doesn’t work, they could shut it down.
And while they’re parked, agencies would reach out to them, finding out what they need and referring them to local services, Locher said.
Locher said the planning committee, known as Finding Opportunities to Collaborate and Unite Services, or FOCUS, is working on long-term solutions: transitional housing and support for affordable housing projects so people won’t go homeless for as long as they do now.