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City planning commission members Wednesday will hear recommendations from city staffers to confirm the Hospitality Center’s conditional use permit as it was first approved in 2012 and defer any amendments for six to 12 months.
- The HC has moved from serving light snacks and refreshments to nearly 1,000 meals a week both with volunteers and partner organizations;
- The hours of operation and services offered have moved beyond what was originally approved in 2012 and isn’t appropriately managed;
- Participants are loitering outside, and smokers are gathering on the sidewalks;
- Bicycles are not stored inside;
- Trash is not properly contained; and
- Participants are in general behaving in a manner that is having a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
Recommendations also include, “officials of the Hospitality center should work to identify an alternative location that can better accommodate their successes.”
Rev. Kevin Stewart, director of the Hospitality Center, submitted a request earlier this month to amend the HC’s conditional use permit to expand the Center’s hours of operation and serve hot meals.
“Let’s be clear,” he said Tuesday night during a phone interview. “We have only added Monday, the Monday dinner, a Thursday night dinner once a month, one Saturday morning per month, and lunch on weekdays except Wednesday when we are closed.”
The HC is located at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 614 Main Street, and serves as a drop-in day program for homeless individuals and the lonely and as a hot-meal program serving around 100 people each when meals are served.
Violations of the conditional use permit came to light last winter when officials in the city attorney’s and mayor’s offices 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, Stewart was notified that the permit could be revoked unless an amended permit is approved by the Plan Commission.
Stewart admits to not following up in a timely manner to amend the Center’s permit even after being made aware of complaints earlier this year, and he understands there are procedures to be followed. Still, people who rely on meals at the Hospitality Center will now have to turn elsewhere if commissioners uphold the staff recommendation.
“We just grew so fast and got so busy meeting the need at our door that the permit was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “If this recommendation is allowed to stand, there will be no lunches and people will be hungry. Let me say it again. People will be hungry.”
City Attorney Rob Weber supplied to Racine County Eye through an open records request any written complaints the city has received.
Out of the 14 email messages we received, 13 were submitted by local lawyer and businessman Joe Muratore between January and June 2015. His messages reference some of the ways listed above the Center was violating its conditional permit and said that the downtown location isn’t a suitable location for a drop-in program or an emergency overnight shelter.
The final message was sent by Fiona Murphy in January during the public groundswell of support for the Center when Stewart announced overnight shelter would cease because of a lack of resources. In her letter, Murphy points out the lack of qualified staff to oversee overnight shelter operations, the lack of appropriate accommodations and that she believed Stewart should have been removed as director of the Center.
According to Mayor John Dickert, he has received between 20 and 30 verbal complaints about the Hospitality Center.
“Every business owner on 6th Street between Main and Wisconsin has complained,” he said. “The truth is that Kevin is not abiding by the conditional use permit, and we have seen an increase in panhandling since the Hospitality Center opened.”
Dickert said his primary concerns are to care for people, protect children and help come up with both short- and long-term solutions to help the people who needed the Center this winter and those who visit during the day program.
On the HC’s Facebook page, Stewart has asked supporters to attend the planning commission meeting to make their comments part of the official record.
The meeting begins at 4:15 p.m. in Room 205 at City Hall, 730 Washington Avenue. Anyone wishing to speak should plan to arrive early to sign up for public comment.