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DeKALB – A proposal to expand Hope Haven homeless shelter was approved 4-3 Monday night by the DeKalb City Council, and aldermen are scheduled to consider it again in two weeks for final approval.
If given approval on second reading, it will allow the shelter to rezone a parcel of land adjacent to the shelter and allow a special-use permit to accommodate 30 additional people.
Voting in favor of the proposal were 1st Ward Alderman Bertrand Simpson, 2nd Ward Alderman Tom Teresinski, 3rd Ward Alderwoman Pam Verbic and Mayor Kris Povlsen. Voting against it were 4th Ward Alderman Brendon Gallagher, 6th Ward Alderman Dave Baker and 7th Ward Alderwoman Lisa Kammes. Fifth Ward Alderman Ron Naylor abstained from the vote because his wife serves on Hope Haven's board of directors.
A motion to waive a second reading so the council did not have to consider it failed to get a second from any member of the council.
Community members filled the council's chambers on the second floor of DeKalb City Hall, with many people wearing red buttons in support of the homeless shelter's proposal to expand its facility at 1145 Rushmoore Drive. When the council approved the first reading, the community members in attendance clapped and cheered.
Hope Haven hopes to add 4,000 square feet to the building to house 30 more clients in the emergency shelter because agency staff say the existing facility is at capacity. Officials said they hope to construct a new wing of the shelter to the west of the existing building on a plot of land the agency already owns.
The original permit allows up to 24 people in the emergency shelter. The expansion would allow it to hold 30 more people. The expansion would allow for 16 additional men, seven additional women and seven additional children to be housed in the facility, according to city documents.
Most of the concerns from aldermen focused on the use of public services and police visits to the shelter.
Teresinski asked Hope Haven officials if the expansion would increase the use of public services in the city because he was concerned it might cause problems because of the number of layoffs the city has had to do recently because of budget restraints.
Lesly Wicks, Hope Haven's executive director, agreed the shelter has called the police on several occasions, but she said the shelter is dedicated to decreasing the number of phone calls made to the police department. Wicks said only 11 percent of the phone calls made to the police department were for criminal offenses. She said the shelter does background checks on all the residents, and that they have turned in six people who were wanted on arrest warrants.
Simpson said this proposal was the first time since he has been on the council that there has been talk about an increase of public services when it comes to an expansion project.
"I didn't get any discussion of how much harder the police are going to work," he said as he talked about other expansion projects. "The discussion was not that it would work the police overtime ... but this is the only discussion in this town as to how it might adversely affect the men in blue."
Povlsen said he was voting in favor of the expansion because the questions that he had were answered by Hope Haven's staff. What he said he was most disappointed in was the response by community members who opposed the proposal.
"People in this community have allowed their emotions to get in the way," he said. "And for those of you who targeted the mayor and saying he opposed this, I say shame on you."
Simpson agreed the issue was an emotional one, but said, "How can this not be an emotional decision. We are talking about people on their last legs."
City staff recommended the council deny the request because the proposal would increase the burden placed upon the public safety departments of DeKalb, City Manager Mark Biernacki said.
But council members were also concerned about the density of people living in such a small area, and that the expansion would mean the shelter would have to remove the playground and garden that occupy the adjacent lot.
"We still can't avoid the obvious – Hope Haven can't handle all the people coming to its doors," Verbic said. "It is obvious that this problem is more than DeKalb and Hope Haven can handle."
Diane Nilan, a documentary filmmaker who has studied homelessness, responded to Verbic's remarks by agreeing that Hope Haven is not the solution to all of DeKalb's problems, but she argued it is a step in the right direction.
"The bottom line is that a homeless shelter is the last step between life and death," she said. "… And Hope Haven is providing something."
Simpson agreed and said there will always be poor people in the community, but what Hope Haven is trying to do is get people back on the right track.
"What do (residents at the shelter) care about, a playground? They need some place to transition back," he said. Simpson said council members needed to think about the people first and worry about the playground and garden next.
Teresinski and Baker asked if there were other options the shelter could look into instead of expansion.
Wicks said the shelter had been considering other alternatives, but what Hope Haven's staff found was that they did not have the money to purchase land elsewhere and build a new shelter.
The expansion proposal came to the city council after a series of events that led to the removal of the DeKalb Plan Commission's chair, then two members resigning from the panel.
During a Sept. 15 meeting of the plan commission, the panel passed Hope Haven’s request 3-2 that a parcel adjacent to the shelter be rezoned to allow for an expansion of the facility.
That vote came after much discussion on whether the commission’s chair, John Guio, should recuse himself because his wife served on the Hope Haven board of directors. Attempts were made that night to call DeKalb City Attorney Norma Guess, but she could not be reached. After reading the code of ethics, Guio said he interpreted it to mean that a recusal is required only when financial matters are involved.
Guio planned to recuse himself, but when the commission came to a stalemate without a majority vote, he decided to vote in favor of the request.
Several days later, Povlsen removed Guio from the commission, citing that Guio violated the city’s code of ethics. The city council later voted 6-2 to uphold the mayor’s decision.
The Hope Haven expansion request was to be sent back to the commission, but Wicks said a commission member in favor of the expansion would have to request it. However, the three members on the commission who voted in favor – Guio, Joe Gastiger and Tom Specht – are no longer serving on the board.
Hope Haven's board of directors were given the opportunity by Povlsen to bring the proposal to the council for a vote, and Wicks said the board unanimously agreed to move forward.
Community members made several comments during the public hearing portion of the meeting in support of the expansion.
Donna Bennett of DeKalb said having volunteered at Hope Haven for many years, she sees the importance of providing people in need a place to stay.
"We have a place where people cannot only be safe, but they can also have hope," she said. "They can change their lives around."