EAU CLAIRE — A decision on a downtown Eau Claire homeless shelter’s plan to expand is delayed until next month.
On Monday night, the city Plan Commission voted 6-2 to postpone a decision on the site plan and a related permit to let Sojourner House, 618 S. Barstow St., roughly double in size.
Plan Commission member Susan Wolfgram wants shelter owner and operator Catholic Charities to hold meetings with downtown neighbors that spoke during Monday night’s public hearing.
“It’s very clear to me the business owners, the neighbors, the residents have not had their very serious concerns mitigated,” she said.
The commission will revisit the shelter’s project at its Sept. 7 meeting.
Kevin Burch, Catholic Charities director of housing services, cautioned against postponement as he worries it could pose a problem with the various sources of funding for the project.
“A delay like this would absolutely put this project in jeopardy,” he said.
The planned expansion would not increase the shelter’s capacity — keeping it at 53 people per night.
However, it would mean no longer having people sleep in bunk beds and providing more space between them — measures intended to reduce the chance of illnesses spreading among guests. (More people would still be allowed in above the regular capacity when winter weather makes it dangerous for people to stay outside.)
According to the project’s plans, a two-story addition would be added to the front of the shelter on what is currently its off-street parking lot. The addition would have 3,450 square feet on its ground floor. This area would include some of the men’s sleeping area, but also the new activity room, kitchen, changing rooms, client storage and reception area.
On the second floor of the addition, there would be 2,750 square feet of office and support space. This would be for employees of Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services that currently provide outreach, crisis and housing help, but also have room for more organizations to join in.
Burch emphasized the potential the added space would bring to expand services offered at the building.
“We wish to provide more services, including more community partners, both during the day and then sheltering those individuals at night,” he said.
A few downtown businesses and landlords spoke during Monday night’s public hearing to express their concerns with allowing the shelter to remain and expand in its current spot.
The organization that owns the Masonic Temple and the neighboring River Edge Apartments, both less than a block away from Sojourner House, spoke in opposition to the shelter’s expansion plans.
“We feel that the location of Sojourner House in Eau Claire’s downtown area has been and continues to be a bad business model,” said David Larson, president of the board of Masonic Trustees.
Pushing people out of the shelter at 7 a.m. each morning without a plan for the rest of their day has led to problems in the neighborhood, he said. Larson listed public urination and defecation, drug use, stealing, littering, trespassing and intimidating tenants as behaviors that have been reported.
“There are many other locations in the city of Eau Claire that would better serve the homeless population with less conflicts and safer conditions,” Larson said.
Mike Milewski, co-owner of Galaudet Gallery, said that problems attributed to the homeless population decreased when the shelter moved to temporary locations elsewhere in Eau Claire earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If Sojourner House were not there we would not have all these problems,” he said. “During the pandemic when they weren’t there, things were normal.”
But others at the public hearing came to the shelter’s defense.
“I believe the people who are opposed to this expansion have a ‘not in my backyard approach,’” said Libby Richter, a social worker who is stationed at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.
Richter contends the problematic behavior that people are complaining about would be addressed by the holistic approach of a building that adds daytime services.
“I believe that’s what’s best for the community — a 24/7 shelter,” she said.
Wolfgram pressed Burch on whether the expanded shelter actually would be a day center where people could walk in or just continue to provide daytime services by appointment.
He replied that the daytime programming is “an open canvas” and it depends on the resources and community partners that would join the expanded Sojourner House.