In light of the Visalia Planning Commission denying an appeal to the St. Paul warming center in downtown, no second appeal was field leaving the center open until March 1
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
VISALIA– Visalia’s only warming center at the St. Paul Episcopal Church is now guaranteed to be open through March 1 since a second appeal was not filed at the Dec. 31 deadline.
According to Reverend Suzi Ward, the removal of a looming appeal has not changed her outlook on the warming center.
Since opening on midway through December St. Paul’s has had their hands full.
“We’ve been busy, and on Friday [Jan. 4] there were 45 people here. The night before there were 51 people. So, I think we’ve grown from the first night when we had 12 or so, now we’re closer to averaging 40,” Ward said.
Between Dec. 19 when the original appeal was denied by the planning commission to Dec. 31 when a second appeal could have been filed, the warming center was up and running. But instead of worrying about another appeal that could have halted the warming center from opening Ward was more concerned with upholding the conditions of the permit.
“I’m more worried if we’re found in violation of anything. So, we are making sure we tell our guests not to come before 9:00 p.m. and make sure that the alley ways are clean,” Ward added.
When the weather started turning colder, a noble effort by Ward to give homeless and others a place to go, led to neighborhood backlash. After the warming center’s temporary conditional use permit was administratively issued on Dec. 17, nearby business owner Dr. Wayne Wundrum of Wundrum Chiropractic on 1414 Main St. filed an immediate appeal and halted the warming center’s operation.
A special planning commission meeting was convened on Dec. 19. After hearing over two hours of public comment, vice chairperson Liz Wynn and commissioner Marvin Hansen voted to deny an appeal over the temporary conditional use permit to open the center.
Chairperson Brett Taylor voted in favor of the appeal, while fellow commissioners Chris Gomez and Sarrah Peariso were absent that night.
Wundrum was the first to address the commission during the Dec. 19 special meeting and said none of the surrounding neighbors are in favor of the warming center because of the homeless people that come into the neighborhood. Several neighbors went on to speak about break-ins and squatters that have been in the area in the past.
Wundrum said the problem he sees most often is in the backyard of his office on Main Street. He said the homeless have broken into the backyard of his office and defecated overnight. Some have even slept there. But Wundrum is hardly the only person with a sanitation complaint.
Apart from operating the warming center Ward says that she lives on Santa Fe Trail in Visalia and is familiar with the types of problems homeless bring to neighborhoods. But she recognized there is not a long term solution to homelessness, and those without shelter need services.
“We need a better long term solution, and I’m sorry we have to do this here in your neighborhood,” Ward said.
Ward noted that most of the solutions residents and business owners want come down to money. St. Paul’s already hired a security guard for a 12-hour shift that consumes 60 percent of her budget. Residents say having a security guard for only half the day allows the homeless to loiter around the center, in the neighborhood. When it comes down to the dollars and center, despite the City of Visalia and the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance kicking in $10,000 each Ward says she is $40,000 short of what she needs for 24-hour security protection in addition to her other expenses.
Part of the problem Ward identified is she cannot control the homeless anymore than the police can if they are not breaking the law. Because the warming center is a low barrier shelter they let in nearly anyone in need. Ward explained the church serves homeless, children, mentally ill and people struggling with addiction. On the nights when they are open St. Paul’s allows those who are currently drunk or high so long as they are calm and not causing a disturbance. But she cannot stop them from leaving and defecating in the surrounding neighborhood.
“These people are adults. They make their own decisions. I can’t force them to go to a certain place. I don’t have that power and neither do you, really,” Ward said. “I just treat them with a lot of love and respect.”