St. John’s Shelter director reacts to mayor’s proposal

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | July 17, 2013

Director says suggestion to turn over church-run homeless shelter to another agency ‘disheartening’

The July 1 meeting had been called to hear updates from the HOPE (Homeless Obligates Planning Efforts) Task Force, which had been formed last December to look at developing a full- service resource center in the downtown area to address the many needs of the city’s homeless in addition to the need for emergency winter shelter.

Mayor supports Freedom Life Skills

At the July 1 meeting, Schmitt offered support for Freedom Life Skills to take over and expand the operation to a 24-hour facility that could offer programs and resources, but not necessarily a shelter. This came as a surprise to many in attendance, though not to the diocese, which had been alerted to the plans.

Numerous questions were addressed July 1 to Gerry Le Fave of Freedom Life Skills, which has 11 locations around Wisconsin, as well as in Michigan and Illinois. Its website indicates that it has “125 affiliated centers across the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Saipan and Guam. The centers are staffed by trained facilitators who teach the ‘Learning to Live, Learning to Love’ curriculum.”

Locally, Freedom Life Skills has locations in Appleton, Green Bay, Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay. None of them is listed as providing shelter facilities.

Wood expresses concern

After the July 1 meeting, Alexia Wood, executive director of St. John’s shelter, sent a letter to supporters. In it, she expressed concern over the city’s action. She shared the letter with The Compass:

“More than anything, I am disheartened with the status of our city after last night’s Protection and Welfare meeting. For a group of individuals to show up with a plan to overtake a ministry they’ve never taken time to serve alongside and understand is absurd. I feel it is a discredit to all of you who have poured time, energy, passion and money into the St. John’s ministry. It is a discredit to our guests whose stories they have never taken the time to understand and whose names they have never learned. For city officials to step in pledging support for this move is ludicrous. City government has no right or ground to tell a ministry how they should operate or if they should operate.”

City has no authority

At the July 1 meeting, assistant city attorney Jim Mueller stated that the city has no authority to order St. John’s to do anything.

Wood said that the shelter has sought to address one of the city’s previous concerns — the shelter’s capacity under a conditional use permit — by filing a new conditional use application in January. Wood said the application was tabled for 60 days in February and “as of July 2 has not yet been untabled.”

Last December, the city cited the shelter for violating the capacity of its conditional use permit. The Compass has learned that the citation, which could have resulted in $500 a day in fines, has been dropped by the city.

The July 1 meeting’s minutes cite Captain Jim Runge of the Green Bay Police as saying his department supports a 24-hour-a-day center. Those same minutes also record the mayor reporting a discussion with Deacon Tim Reilly, general director of the diocesan curia, in which the diocese expressed a willingness to expand the shelter to year-round, 24-hour a day facility. However, more funds would be needed to do so. Presently, the shelter lacks on-site kitchen facilities and is housed in a gym. The mayor did not indicate that the city would offer to help with funding.

Shelter offers summer resources

Wood addressed the committee July 1 and said that the shelter continues to offer resources to the homeless during the summer months. These include allowing them to use St. John’s address to receive mail and being open on Tuesdays on a drop-in basis.

In a later conversation with The Compass, Wood said that on Tuesdays, a nurse practitioner, a mental health therapist, an AODA counselor, an outreach worker and a Brown County case worker are all on site at the shelter and that additional services are offered to guests to help find housing and employment. There are also free laundry services, free personal hygiene items and lunch. On Thursdays, an AODA counselor offers drop-in hours for the AODA program.

Wood said that, participation in the AODA program, which runs from 9 to 11:30 a.m., “has grown during the course of the summer.”

Deacon Reilly, when contacted by The Compass following the July 1 committee meeting, said that “part of that work (of St. John Shelter) is always to help folks towards permanent housing.” He added that, despite any attempts otherwise, “we will be opening the St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter on Nov. 1 as part of our Catholic ministry.”

Wood said that she has learned the shelter issue will again be addressed at Green Bay Common Council’s meeting scheduled for July 30.

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