The city of Janesville is taking seriously its homelessness problem, despite City Manager Mark Freitag neglecting to mention the work of a homelessness task force during his State of the City address last week.
The city won’t be able to solve this problem in a day or even a year. We expect slow, incremental progress, and we hope others adjust their expectations accordingly.
A new proposal to provide parking space and restrooms for people who live in their vehicles won’t necessarily eradicate homelessness, but it would provide some peace of mind for homeless people in need of both a place to park overnight and easy access to restrooms.
The city is also investigating housing options, but these proposals will take months to develop. One idea is to convert homes purchased by the city through foreclosure into transitional housing. Some residents also are eager to pursue a tiny homes development, where homeless people would live before transitioning into permanent housing.
Gazette reporter Neil Johnson traveled to Racine to see how that community operates a tiny homes development for homeless veterans. He discovered city officials had to address zoning concerns before proceeding with the project.
Many municipalities, including Janesville, specify a minimum square footage for new homes. In Janesville, it’s 800 square feet. In Racine, to get around that problem, officials used a “rooming house” zoning designation similar to a motel, classifying each tiny home as an individual “rooming unit.”
While many communities have built tiny homes, it’s still a relatively new and untested concept. We appreciate city council President Doug Marklein’s cautious approach, recognizing the city, if it’s going to someday approve a tiny homes development, needs to make sure it does it right.
At the same time, city officials appreciate housing is only one facet of homelessness. Freitag shared with The Gazette his notes from the task force’s last meeting, Jan. 9, demonstrating the broad scope of the task force’s mission. At that meeting, several issues were discussed, including the creation of a homeless outreach team, or HOT, that would bring together officials from different agencies to work with homeless people to better direct them to the services and resources they need.
The task force is also examining how to overcome transportation and employment challenges for homeless people, along with providing more options for mental health and addiction treatment.
The task force seems to realize no single initiative, whether a parking lot or tiny homes, is the solution. Advocates for the homeless are right to point out the city needs to do more, but they should also maintain realistic expectations and understand this issue will never involve unfurling a “mission accomplished” sign.