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City Manager Mark Freitag speaks during the annual State of the City address at City Hall in Janesville last month. Freitag says the city and a task force on homelessness are considering launching a safe parking lot for homeless people who live and sleep in their cars.

JANESVILLE

By this spring, a portion of the area’s homeless population—those who live and sleep in their cars—might have a secure and legal place to park and sleep overnight.

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag and members of the city’s public-private task force on homelessness say they’re working to identify a parking lot in the city that might be suitable as a sanctioned, overnight, safe parking area for homeless people who live in their vehicles.

It’s one plan the task force, formed last summer, is focusing on to try to stem homelessness in Janesville. The group is also searching for possible answers to a crunch in affordable housing.

Freitag said he and seven other members of the task force—mostly members of nonprofit groups who aid the homeless—formed a subcommittee to study and review the idea of secured parking.

“Is there a population of people that fall into this category? The answer from the subcommittee members was a resounding ‘yes.’ The subcommittee says they currently are dealing with clients that even in these extreme temperatures are living in their cars. So, you know, do we feel that this is worthwhile to pursue? You know, absolutely,” Freitag said.

Freitag brought up the parking lot plan to reporters following his annual State of the City address earlier this month.

It’s not clear whether the city might ask a local business or owner of a private lot to get involved or if the program would use a public lot. Freitag said the task force likely will have details sketched out by March, and he believes it could try to launch a parking program by May.

Under current policies, Janesville police are obligated to respond to homeless people who are sleeping in their cars in public or privately owned parking lots, Police Chief David Moore said.

Moore said the first priority is to ensure people sleeping in their vehicles are safe. In some circumstances, he said, owners of private parking lots ask police to relocate people sleeping in their cars.

Freitag said the task force is reviewing a safe parking lot program run in San Bernardino County, California. He said that program and others like it use online registries to make parking spots available on a first-come, first-served basis.

He pictures a system that would give people daily check-in and check-out times.

Jessica Locher, a caseworker for Janesville social service nonprofit group ECHO, is one of the task force members working on the plan. She said the task force now is scouting potential parking lots. One task force member, a Janesville police officer, is researching the cost of a security detail to would monitor the lot.

Locher suggested an overnight parking lot would help social service groups reach out to people who are living in vehicles. Some, she said, might be interested in finding more suitable shelter.

Like Freitag, Locher hopes the program could launch by spring.

“It will be a quick turnaround, but it is doable as long we find the correct location and have enough buy-in from service providers to do outreach at night to those using the parking lot, so we can try to move them out of homelessness,” Locher said.

San Bernardino County places portable toilets at lots it uses.

Freitag says an ideal lot for Janesville’s program might have restrooms nearby.

“We discussed that maybe it would be nice if you had a hard facility like a public restroom. Even better than that is if there was any kind of shower facility where you could wash yourself up. We’re looking for a parking lot that might have some of those things,” Freitag said.

A clerk at one gas station on the city’s north side said homeless people use her station’s parking lot to sleep in cars fairly often. She said employees tolerate it, but the station has an unspoken policy to eventually ask people to move along.

The task force doesn’t yet have an idea how many parking spots or what size of a lot might suit the need.

“Maybe some of the service providers locally can give us a better number as we move through this. But right now, my vision was we offer the service, we set it up and see if it’s used,” Freitag said.

“If it’s used, great. If it’s not, we can always turn it off but. But it’s at least worth the try.”

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