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OPINION - The right place for the warming center

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   Wausau city leaders approved relocating the city’s homeless ‘warming shelter’ last night. They got some of this right, and some of this wrong.

As you might imagine, there’s always going to be a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ component to anything involving the homeless. The NIMBY’s are right on one point and wrong on another. The argue, correctly, that the new location on South 3rd Avenue is too close to a residential area. It is. While there are businesses that face the street, there are residential homes that are one lot away from the corner. Literally, people are living right next door. Placing social service offices in residential neighborhoods is always bad for property values and is almost always a poor choice.

But there’s a weakness to this argument. It’s the ‘light use’ of a warming shelter. This isn’t a full-blown homeless shelter with rooms, bunk beds, meals and showers. Instead it’s intended as a place for people to warm up if they’re on the streets for cold winter nights. They sit in a plush chair and can have some coffee or hot chocolate. That means fewer people, arriving later, and staying shorter. All of those factors minimize the warming center’s impact on neighbors.

This is a close call, but I still think this is the wrong location. For me, it comes down to where the homeless are. They’re downtown. And that’s where the warming center should be. If you’re going to offer social services, you put them where the users are going to be. You don’t do the homeless any favors if you tell them there’s some help available across the bridge, two blocks over, and then down two blocks. The old warming center, in the basement of St. Paul’s Church, was a better location one block from the mall and the 400-block.

Wausau needs a warming center. Being homeless and on the street during a bitter winter night is brutal. The issue isn’t ‘if’ but ‘where’. The city has settled on South 3rd Avenue. Downtown was a better location.

Chris Conley
7.10.13