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JANESVILLE

People concerned about a city proposal to allow homeless people to sleep overnight in parked cars at Palmer Park can learn more about the plan at an informational forum later this month, officials say.

For now, the plan won’t see action at City Hall until July at the earliest. That’s when the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee can discuss it at its next meeting. The plan would allow homeless people to park overnight in a lot near a playground and wading pool at the east-side park.

The council would have to alter a city ordinance that prohibits parking in city parks from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Rock County Progressives, a group that provides monthly forums on “progressive” topics and local activism, local nonprofit agent and homelessness expert Marc Perry discussed the parking proposal as part of a larger discussion on local homelessness.

Perry, who is the director of planning and development for Beloit social service agency Community Action, said he estimates at any given time, a dozen or more families and individuals who are homeless and living in their vehicles are looking for a safe place to park.

He said that number is just a sliver of the 400 or so homeless people who live in Rock County at any given time. That number includes families with children and some who are on the run from domestic violence.

Some of Perry’s Community Action colleagues are part of FOCUS, a Janesville-based homelessness task force formed last year by city officials and nonprofit social service agencies to find new ways to respond to local homelessness. FOCUS crafted the Palmer Park proposal as part of multipronged approach to homelessness in Janesville, Perry said.

Approximately 150 beds at local shelters remain full with waiting lists for clients, Perry said.

A portion of those waiting live in their cars, and in Janesville, they’re not allowed to park and sleep in vehicles along streets, in private lots or in parking lots.

“People are driving around right now, this second, looking for a place to stop,” Perry said Wednesday.

At dusk one night earlier this week, there were no signs of vehicles in the Palmer Park lot in question.

Andy Jarog lives in an apartment a few blocks from the park. He told a Gazette reporter that he recently saw a couple in the park sleeping in a pavilion next to CAMDEN Playground, an area of the park frequented by families.

He said the couple had belongings and bed rolls. They were at the park a few evenings, and then moved on.

Another woman who was walking through the park at dusk said her neighborhood is abuzz with discussion over the parking proposal. She didn’t want to give her name, saying she was concerned about going public before she made up her mind on the proposal.

“It’s nothing new, homeless people sleeping in their car at this park,” she said. “But if the city opens it up, sanctions it, people are concerned. Some are really against the city’s plan. I’m resistant to it because I feel like I need to read more information.”

She said some neighbors are concerned about safety in a park that is heavily used by families and children.

According to a proposal the city manager’s office presented to the council in May, FOCUS chose Palmer Park for overnight parking because it has ample spots and lighting and 24/7 restroom facilities.

Council President Rich Gruber sent the plan to the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee for further discussion, effectively stalling a hearing for at least a month.

Gruber said he wants a written review of the proposal from the fire and police departments. The parks committee’s next meeting is July 9. Gruber said the earliest the council could hold a public hearing on the proposal would be late July.

At the progressive group’s meeting Wednesday night, council member Sue Conley said the task force will host a public information and feedback session on the proposal at 6 p.m. June 26 at City Hall.

Gruber said Wednesday that the plan came to the council as a “skeleton” proposal, and he thinks the public needs more information.

Gruber said homeless people staying in the park could be a “targeted population for predators.” He suggested that on-site security and social service outreach for those who use the parking lot would need to be handled as a “public-private” task with private nonprofits taking the lead.

The proposal brought to the council last month suggested the police department could place a security camera at the site for several months and that police would monitor a live feed remotely.

According to the proposal, research showed on-site security would be too expensive. The proposal suggested the council could consider budgeting for on-site security in 2020.

Jarog told The Gazette he thinks a lack of security would be a bigger worry for homeless families than for the general public.

“If somebody knows this is where (homeless) families, women, kids are staying at night, they might get bothered by men. Or high school kids could get drunk and decide it’d be fun to go and harass people,” Jarog said. “Some people think their kids would be in harm’s way around the homeless, but it could be the other way around. The opposite could happen. It could be the homeless people at risk.”

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