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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 08:54 am

Let’s find a better place for the Salvation Army

The first step is to reject the current proposal

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Let’s keep working on this Salvation Army issue. There has to be a better location for a homeless shelter than the site the Army has picked, out by the airport. The Salvation Army keeps saying that because homelessness is a community problem, the community needs to find the shelter a home. But even though the group conducted a survey for its needs assessment study, the community hasn’t really been involved in picking a shelter site. And it won’t get a chance to do so unless the City Council rejects the proposed suburban location when it comes up for a vote on Dec. 6.
Most people, when asked, say the best location for a homeless shelter would be near the center of the city, near other social services such as those provided by St. John’s Breadline, Kumler Neighborhood Ministries, and Washington Street Mission. Near hospitals, police, and fire services. In fact, it should be near where the Salvation Army currently is, at Sixth and Carpenter. The group’s own study recommended that it find a location within a one-mile radius of its current facility, but the site it picked is two miles away. During a Nov. 28 three-hour wrangling session with opponents, Bennett Krause, a Salvation Army advisory board member, said, in jest, that the ideal location would be where St. John’s Hospital is. He was being sarcastic, but he was in the right area. There is open, available, undeveloped land in the area near the hospitals, between Madison and Carpenter streets. This was designated a “future development area” in the new Medical District comprehensive plan. By designing a facility that would conform with the Medical District’s “urban hip” vision, the Salvation Army’s community center and shelter could become one of the district’s “catalyst” projects, setting a progressive tone for future projects. “Why are they going way out there?” is the first question most people ask when they learn the Salvation Army wants to move to the outskirts of town. The reason is the same for sprawl everywhere: cheap land. Proponents don’t say this is the best location. They say it is the best location they can afford. The Medical District, they argue, has made central city land expensive, which may be true, though we don’t see it being gobbled up. The Salvation Army, and Springfield, would do better to go for the best location, even if it means buying less than the seven acres the Army wants, or even less than the three-and-a-half acres it says it needs. It only takes a look at the YMCA or the Hoogland Center for the Arts to see that a spacious community center can fit on half a city block. The Army has become enamored with its “Countryside Manor” vision of open air and athletic fields, but perhaps it could be persuaded that the population it serves is willing to forego baseball and volleyball to be closer to town. Much as some try to portray opponents of the site on the airport road as prejudiced, emotional homeless-haters, they seem levelheaded to me, and they keep raising good questions. Like, how are the homeless going to get there? The city bus route stops at North Grand, and the Salvation Army says its clients can walk the rest of the way, although they acknowledge there is no sidewalk from North Grand to the site, and no plans, currently, to build one. The new and nearly empty historic sites bus goes to the Lincoln Tomb and war memorials, but veterans groups are trying to avoid requiring shelter clients to walk through Oak Ridge Cemetery and cross a busy highway. Neighbors say they aren’t worried so much about the clients the shelter takes in as they are about the ones it refuses to take in. Will they be left to wander the neighborhoods? The Salvation Army says they’ll be offered rides to other places that will help, but admits it has little control over their movements. It would be hard to find a kinder, gentler, group than the Oak Ridge Neighborhood Association. Their concerns are legitimate. The Salvation Army has pointed out that the federal Fair Housing Act has provisions to prevent zoning petitions for homeless shelters from being rejected on purely emotional grounds, and the lawsuit-weary city attorney says they might have a case. City Council members seem swayed by her concerns, but dodging lawsuits is not a good way to govern a city. It is not a bad thing to allow the court system to interpret this vague federal statute. To be clear, the Salvation Army has not exactly threatened a lawsuit, and has specified that even if it went to court, that would be only for the purpose of changing the zoning decision to its favor, not to take the city’s money. Aldermen shouldn’t use fear of a lawsuit as an excuse for siting a homeless shelter in the wrong place. The Salvation Army says nobody has come forward with a suitable alternative location for its proposed new facility, but that’s not quite fair. Opponents of the current site have offered numerous suggestions, but the Army rejects them all with the argument they don’t meet its criteria of location, size, and price. The Salvation Army needs to change its criteria. It can find a better location if it will go for less land and a higher price in the central city. Yet it isn’t likely to budge from its current proposal until the City Council votes it down.
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