Many stereotypes about homelessness have surfaced in comments about a city proposal to allow homeless people living in vehicles to park overnight at Palmer Park on Janesville’s east side.
Fears of the homeless targeting children at the park’s playground and turning the park into a drug den rank high on residents’ list of concerns. One letter writer asked, “Why is the city of Janesville determined to violate this beautiful park?”
The writer probably isn’t alone in believing the mere presence of homeless people in a public space degrades that space. It’s an unfortunate view, and one that could prevent Janesville from taking even small steps toward solving homelessness, a growing problem in our community.
The city has built a strong case for making Palmer Park into a safe spot for the homeless to park overnight.
No. 1: Palmer Park is relatively secluded, limiting the potential for any not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, backlash. The nearest residential property line is about 500 feet from the proposed parking area, and the next closest is about 1,100 feet away, meaning no houses would adjoin the parking area.
No. 2: The park’s restrooms, used by both park goers and people traveling the Interstate, are opened 24/7.
No. 3: The police department plans to monitor the area, which includes installing a security camera. If security becomes a problem, officials have indicated police have authority to end overnight parking.
If the city council and residents speak against the Palmer Park proposal at the next council meeting Tuesday, May 28, they should be prepared to unveil and support another location the whole community can support. (The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 9. A city council hearing is planned for July 22.) To complain about this proposal but then fail to offer a workable alternative is to disregard the needs of the community’s homeless population.
But we don’t expect anyone to offer a viable alternative because a group meeting regularly to consider homeless issues has already vetted other sites, and Palmer Park rose to the top for the three aforementioned reasons.
Sadly, many objections to this proposal are rooted in ignorance and fear about homelessness, not in personal experiences with homeless people.
As Marc Perry states in his nearby column, the homeless suffer the same problems, such as addiction and mental illness, as those of us with roofs over our heads. If we truly wrestled with homelessness and its causes, we would realize the margin separating us from them isn’t as wide as many of us would like to think. The rash of foreclosures in Janesville during the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated many people are only one catastrophe away from losing their homes.
The city council should approve this measure, while still focusing on comprehensive initiatives that have proven effective in other communities. Along with providing more housing, Janesville needs more mental-health and life-skills support services for the homeless. Perhaps this parking area could become an opportunity to direct the homeless to these services.
The community can reduce homelessness but only if residents keep an open mind about potential solutions. To be sure, allowing overnight parking at Palmer Park isn’t much of a solution, but it does provide the homeless with a place to stop, rest and feel safe, something many of us take for granted when we return home at night.
This editorial has been updated to include hearing dates for the Palmer Park proposal.