Homeless support program approved for St. John’s Park
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – A homeless support program at a downtown Green Bay park – St. John’s – got the green light from city council at its meeting Tuesday, March 30.
Last year, the city saw an uptick in homeless individuals gathering in St. John’s, generating more than 100 police calls from April to October, including disturbances, public drug use and sexual assaults.
Paul VanHandel, community police officer, said police saw an increase in people living in the park – from around 20 people in May and June, to more than 40 in September and October.
“All I know is if we aren’t doing anything, if we delay this program and not engage these folks the way that we can with this program, we are probably going to have people congregate once again and not be able to take these mitigation steps to place people at an earlier time,” VanHandel said.
Though homelessness has been prevalent in the Greater Green Bay area long before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.
“A point of clarification, I don’t think this program is being designed to deal with certain individuals in our community,” said District 7 Alder Randy Scannell. “These individuals have been in our community for quite some time. The difference is COVID-19 and the disruption in our services. That is the real issue here. There has been a breakdown in our services and this is a measure to help navigate people back into those services.”
The one-year pilot program, spearheaded by St. John’s Homeless Shelter, is designed to help connect or reconnect individuals with services and programs to help them become self-sufficient.
The initiative will have daily programming at the park starting April 30 through October, which is considered the offseason for local shelters.
St. John’s staff will monitor the park daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with other community organizations providing evening programs.
“This is not a solution, this whole thing is not planned to be a solution,” said Barbara Dorff, council vice president. “This is an intervention in a problem. They told us when they presented it, it isn’t a solution. We won’t solve homelessness in a year. We are going to intervene in a situation and make it better than it was last summer. And then we are going to have to look at what the next step is going to be. It wasn’t intended to be a solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Some alders raised concerns for nearby businesses and residents.
“I really do think there is a better option that we could find,” said District 8 Alder Chris Wery. “When you really boil down to it, there are 10, 20, 30, 40 people that are refusing services, and they are really dictating to the city how this park is going to be used. I think you are going to find the people that don’t want the services are not going to go there because they aren’t going to want to be pestered about it, or reminded about it, and they are going to go to other parks. We are going to hear reports from Jackson Square, Astor, along the trail and along the river. We are going to hear other things.”
The motion passed included an amendment which provides incident reports for the park area from the police department at every Protection and Policy Committee meeting for the duration of the program, an end-of-season report detailing the program’s outcome and a report by July from the area’s steering committee on the status of the strategic plan to eliminate homelessness.
Alders stressed the need for county involvement in tackling area homelessness long-term.
“I would like that July report to come back with some tangible recommendations of how the county is going to invest in this problem,” said District 10 Alder Brian Johnson. “It is not enough, in my opinion, to just say the county is at the table. We heard multiple people say that. And that is wonderful that they are at the table. It is not enough. We need investment. This is a Brown County problem and the City of Green Bay is bearing the expense. We need county investment.”