Kenosha – Ald. Jan Michalski wants a refuge center for the homeless to leave his district’s neighborhood.
But Tracy Sanchez, founder and CEO of First Step Services Inc., says a new program mission and hours of operation could make it a better neighbor.
First Step Services, 1017 63rd St., a non-lodging refuge center, has been in operation since 2003. Offering meals, mail pick up and counseling, the non-profit agency has been the last stop for those ineligible for overnight services through the Shalom Center due to addiction or mental health issues.
First Step offers daytime services year-round and is closed at night from April 1 though Nov. 1.
Over the years, First Step Services clients have created neighborhood friction due to a number of things, from loitering to litter. In the months when the center is closed at night, many sleep on the sidewalks in front of it.
“People in the neighborhood have been dealing with public nuisance issues like urinating in doorways and sleeping on the sidewalks, drinking and pitching refuse and hypodermic needles in the area,” Michalski said. “People are tired of seeing this and watching their property values plummet.”
Sanchez acknowledged that loitering and sidewalk sleepers are a problem, but contended the area around the center has always had problems.
“I don’t think First Step makes this neighborhood worse; it was bad before we got here. It has a long history of problems.”
The only solution, Michalski said, is for the organization to “start from scratch elsewhere.”
“They couldn’t do worse than where it is now: on a main drag into the city, across from a park and near an elementary school and day care centers.”
In recent months, Sanchez and First Step volunteers have met with an ad-hoc committee of city officials.
“We are trying to approach this from a variety of directions,” said Byron Wright, executive director of Kenosha Human Development Services. “If First Step isn’t there, we will be looking for other solutions.”
First Steps’ proposed program changes will be presented to the city’s Licensing and Permit Committee March 27.