In a nutshell, officials in the city attorney’s office have received complaints about how the Center grew from a day program into a full-on homeless shelter during the winter, and from serving light snacks and refreshments to the city’s largest hot meal program. Because the Hospitality Center’s services have expanded past its original conditional use permit, Hospitality Center executive director Rev. Kevin Stewart has been notified that the permit could be revoked unless an amended permit is approved by the Plan Commission.
“We just grew so fast that I was really just responding to the need at our door,” Steward said. “I understand and respect the process, so I am filling out and filing the appropriate paperwork so the Hospitality Center can continue offering fellowship to anyone in need.”
Stewart hopes to get on the July 29 commission agenda. Racine County Eye has requested copies of the complaints through the state’s open records request law.
The case against the Hospitality Center
When the Center opened four years ago, Stewart applied for and was granted a conditional use permit to host a day program at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 614 Main Street, three days of a week with light snacks. Among the conditions attached to the permit were the requirements that participants not congregate outside; bicycles get stored inside; “no loitering” sign posted; and all trash disposed of in closed containers out of sight.
On January 21, city Attorney Robert Weber sent a letter to Tom Scrivner, attorney for the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, outlining complaints received by his office that pointed out:
- Hospitality Center was open for more hours than originally approved
- The Center was operating a homeless shelter without adequately trained staff on-site and with children occasionally housed there as well;
- Food service was more extensive than light snacks;
- Bicycles were stored outside;
- “No loitering” signs were not posted; and
- Trash was not disposed of properly
In his January 30 response, Rev. Steven Miller, Episcopal bishop of Milwaukee, assured Weber that alternate accommodations had been found for families with children. He also wrote that launching the Hospitality Center ministry had uncovered gaps in necessary services during the coldest months of the year and that until a community-wide solution could be found, the HC would continue offering emergency overnight shelter during the winter.
“Since 2012, the programs of the Hospitality Center have grown steadily in response to unmet needs in the Racine community,” the letter reads. “Until a community-wide solution can be found, we will continue to serve … our brothers and sisters who have no other shelter option during cold winter days and nights.”
Answering the call
On June 4, Stewart received another letter – this time from Ken Plaski, chief building inspector for the City of Racine – notifying Stewart that the Center’s conditional use permit was in jeopardy and outlining many of the same points Weber sent to Scrivner in January.
Stewart told Racine County Eye that he is aware of the complaints against the Hospitality Center, but he questions why people aren’t instead coming forward with offers of help and ideas for solutions.
“There’s too much complaining, but very few offers of help,” he said. “They don’t want us downtown, okay, but then where do we go? The problem doesn’t go away if the Hospitality Center shuts down, and winter is coming sooner than we might like to think about.”
One of the points Plaski states is that Center participants “shall not endanger the public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare of the area.”
Stewart pointed out that there are no broken windows or graffiti or even police calls to the area.
“Our participants are endangering people or harming the area? I want to see proof,” he angrily retorted. “We haven’t had any assaults or daily police calls. Heck, we don’t even have graffiti or broken windows.”
Another point of contention is the abundance of garbage in area containers that does not remain in receptacles.
“The Hospitality Center is not the only group who uses the garbage cans,” Stewart pointed out. “St. Luke’s, Vocational Ministries, and at least two area businesses also throw their trash back there, so how can anyone be certain it’s all from us?”
To rectify the discrepancies between the hours of operation first listed with when the HC is actually open as well as when meals are served as opposed to light snacks, Stewart will be sure he fills out the paperwork with those details. He has also posted a “no loitering” sign and is asking that the bicycle provision be struck from the permit altogether.
The Plan Commission is scheduled to meet next on July 29.