The Elkhorn City Council last week killed a proposal to open a domestic violence shelter over parking concerns, but let’s call out this decision for what it is: a not-in-my-backyard response fueled by some neighbors’ fears about living near a shelter.
The last three suspected murders in Walworth County involved domestic violence, but the council didn’t make these deaths a priority. It fussed about driveway length and the number of parking spaces at the site.
Proponents of opening a New Beginnings shelter disputed the council’s findings, stating the architectural plans meet the city’s standards. “I feel they weren’t willing to look at the facts,” New Beginnings Board President Janis Scharnott said.
Scharnott probably knows this decision wasn’t really about parking. Parking was merely the pretext that justified the 4-2 vote to deny a plan unpopular among a group of neighbors.
Leading up to last week’s council meeting, shelter opponents portrayed the downtown site, a former medical building, as poorly suited for a shelter. Some opponents suggested the area could lure domestic violence perpetrators to the area, but shelter officials dispelled these concerns with information provided by other shelters. Few shelters report security problems, in part because they take strong measures to protect victims who come there.
The location would be ideal, considering the Elkhorn police headquarters is across the street.
We asked Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore whether his department receives many complaints about Janesville’s YWCA domestic violence shelter, and he said, “I don’t recall any calls for service down there. We may have had some, but certainly not frequently.”
He described the shelter as an important partner in protecting domestic violence victims. Police officers work closely with victims and the shelter, taking steps after an incident to ensure victims can access the shelter. “We’re just so thankful we have the YWCA and shelter in our community,” Moore said.
Both Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen and Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell signed a letter offering support for the downtown Elkhorn shelter. “For the greater community good, we feel the former Aurora medical building is an appropriate site,” the letter states.
With law enforcement on the shelter’s side, opponents needed another way to win, and so they found a technicality. Council member Tim Shiroda went to the proposed site and personally measured it to determine whether it could fit at least 27 parking spaces. He presented his math at last week’s meeting. But by using the parking issue as a fig leaf, Shiroda and the rest of the council dismissed the larger, moral issues at stake.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest the council’s decision could endanger lives. We don’t know whether the three women killed in Walworth County over the past year would have fled their abusers if they had access to a local shelter. All we know is they didn’t have that option.
We also know future victims won’t have that option, either, thanks to the council’s decision last week.