The Visalia Planning Commission held a special meeting December 18 to review a request for a temporary conditional permit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as a low-barrier warming center. This is Reverend Suzy Ward’s third successful attempt at receiving the city’s approval. The planning commission unanimously approved the temporary use of the church from December 26th through late February of 2020.
The approval comes after an overwhelmingly positive display of support from the public during the special meeting. Support which is likely due to improved conditions such as added security and a drop in complaints in last year’s warming center. The 2018 warming center operation resulted in no code violations and fewer calls to the police department.
H.O.P.E Team Officer Tim Haener, revealed that only 7 calls were placed in regard to the warming center last year – compared to 27 in 2017. According to Officer Haener, that number is consistent with any given area in Visalia, demonstrating there has been no increase in crime due to the large number of homeless gathering at the warming center.
There was also a myriad of speakers from the public who stayed at last year’s warming center. One after another, they took to the podium and gave emotional testimonies about the positive impact of Ward’s warming center.
Richard Farmer stayed and volunteered at the warming center with his girlfriend last year. He spoke to the planning commission about his experience.
“They started us on this other place so we can get housing, where we can go get food and showers. It was a nice warm place to stay…If you needed someone to talk to they had a great staff…Without them, I don’t know if we would have made it through that winter.”
Rebecca Peter, from Family Services’ supportive housing office, praised the low-barrier warming center’s ability to reach previously unattainable populations of homeless, like families who fear separation at traditional homeless shelters.
“We discovered that a lot of the clientele that come in to the warming center, [family services] doesn’t have access to…So, I wanted to point out that what is happening in the warming center is they’re giving them the opportunity to get access, to get connected to resources that they need, that the traditional shelters don’t have.”
Although last year’s warming center was met with mostly praise, there were still a few complaints, particularly about feces being found near people’s homes, businesses, and alleyways. Planning commission member Marvin Hansen turned to public leaders Mayor Link and Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who were in the audience. He asked for support from the city and county after sharing a grave warning about the sentiment of a particular resident in the area.
“I’m going to support that the warming center open, but we need to do something for the private property owners,” Hansen said. “If I was living there I’d go ballistic. I spoke to somebody who lived within…a couple blocks, and if he were to catch somebody on his property now you may have somebody in jail for murder.”
One of the citizens who spoke out suggested putting public latrines or porta potties in the parking lot east of the church as a possible solution to the sanitation issue. The suggestion did not go unheard: planning commission member, Brett Taylor attempted to motion for the commission that one porta potty be included on-site as an additional condition for the warming center’s permit.
However, Visalia City Planner Paul Bernal interjected by explaining that providing a porta potty on-site poses some operational issues like maintenance of the latrine, but more importantly it would also re-introduce the problem of loitering in the area.
Taylor was adamant about his position on the issue and emphasized the importance of including a porta potty on site. “My problem with that is that I’ve heard nothing negative besides there being feces around there,” Taylor explained. “It’s been a very supportive meeting, so I want to make sure that the one issue that was brought up is taken care of.”
Despite Taylor’s attempts, the commission seemed to side with Bernal’s concerns about the operational and loitering problems that the porta potty might create and chose to motion for the warming center’s temporary use permit be passed without the addition of a portable restroom.
It’s worth noting that Ward has been very aware of the sanitation concerns from residents in the area and that the warming center initially was not planned to re-open at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this winter. In fact, Ward was working with her partners to find an alternate and possibly permanent shelter elsewhere. Countless commercial real estate companies and properties were searched, however none of them were affordable or available despite many of them being vacant.
In the meantime, St. Episcopal Church will continue to serve the homeless and unsheltered during the winter, so sanitation mitigation will remain the responsibility of the warming center. Ward encourages residents to notify staff about any sanitation issues, so they can take care of it as quickly as possible.