St. John homeless shelter's future remains unclear

Apr. 15, 2013

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St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, 411 St. John St., has been under fire throughout much of its current season. / File/Press-Gazette Media


As a tumultuous season winds down, Green Bay’s downtown homeless shelter faces a future that remains filled with uncertainty.

St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, which ends its season on April 30, has endured months of scrutiny and criticism related to how it serves the area’s homeless population.

But the facility run by the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay at 411 St. John St. might not know for several more months whether city officials are going to continue trying to crack down on the operation.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” said Paul Neumeyer, a senior planner for the city.

City officials in December cited the homeless shelter for exceeding occupancy limits, initiating a Municipal Court case that could result in fines of up to $500 a day against the diocese.

Faced with growing demand for its services in tough economic times, the diocese responded by petitioning the city to increase from 64 to 84 the maximum number of people permitted to stay at the emergency overnight shelter. Shelter officials say they had long been accommodating overflow populations without objection from the city.

With both the permit request and court case still pending, both sides are pointing to a new community-wide task force on homelessness as a potential outlet for resolving differences and determining the future of St. John’s shelter.

Alderman Mark Steuer, who is leading the task force, said it could be September before the group is prepared to unveil recommendations. Steuer, however, said there does not seem to be another agency locally providing the same emergency shelter services as the Catholic diocese.

“For that particular need, St. John’s does fill the need,” he said. “I don’t have another alternative at this time.”

Other city officials declined to comment, citing the pending Municipal Court case.

Diocese spokeswoman Justine Lodl also declined to comment, saying that church leaders were waiting for the task force to produce some findings. Lodl issued a statement from Deacon Tim Reilly, president of the shelter, who said: “We are grateful for the effort of the task force to address the multiple issues of homelessness in our area.”

Now in its sixth year, the St. John shelter operates from November until April, offering homeless people a place to stay out of the cold overnight, along with meals and other basic necessities.

Proponents applaud the operation for helping the area’s most needy and destitute citizens, while critics contend that the facility draws too many homeless people to Green Bay and has become a public nuisance.

Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt has been a vocal advocate of cracking down on the shelter, which he frequently describes as a blight on downtown at a time when businesses and developers are investing millions of dollars downtown. But when Schmitt urged aldermen to take action against the shelter’s permit, they instead created the task force to study homelessness in general.

After the diocese requested a review of its permit to set new occupancy limits, the city’s Plan Commission voted Feb. 11 for a 60-day postponement to see if a compromise could be negotiated.

Neumeyer said he and Reilly have since agreed to wait for the task force to complete its work. Neumeyer said he hopes to see some resolution at least before the shelter opens for another season Nov. 1.

“We’ll have to see what they come up with,” he said of the task force.

The task force, which is scheduled to meet again April 29, has focused on homelessness in the downtown area, including other facilities that could be used to provide services, and potential funding sources that could pay for new services. The group also is examining community-wide homelessness issues unrelated to downtown.

David Pietenpol, co-leader of the downtown team, said his group is studying what happens downtown when the St. John shelter closes at 9 a.m. each day and leaves its clients to occupy themselves until the shelter reopens at 5 p.m.

Pietenpol said the shelter seems to be operating “exactly the way they need to be.” He also voiced confidence that city and diocese officials will be able to reach some sort of understanding so that St. John can continue serving the homeless.

“Yes, I think there are ways to make that work,” he said. “What they are, that’s a good question.”

The St. John homeless shelter's season

Nov. 1: Shelter opens for the season.

Dec. 10: Aldermen create task force to study homelessness.

Dec. 27: City issues citation accusing shelter of violating occupancy limits.

Jan. 3: Shelter says some residents moved temporarily to St. Norbert College.

Jan. 14: Shelter backers urge other local agencies to help deal with homelessness.

Feb. 5: Municipal court date postponed amid settlement talks.

Feb. 11: City planners postpone permit action for 60 days. and follow him on Twitter @pgscottwilliams.

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