Tiffani Krueger of Evergreen Community Initiatives points to what she calls "an anti-homeless device" that was recently installed on benches on the downtown Square. (Metro Wire photo)

Video: Group protests ‘anti-homeless’ move in downtown Point

By Brandi Makuski

About 45 people attended a rally in downtown Stevens Point on Sunday designed to bring attention to a new feature on downtown benches — metal armrests that divide the bench in two.

Though it was billed as a “Rally for Affordable and Accessible Housing,” most of the conversation on Sept. 17 centered around what some called prejudice against the local homeless population and the installation of metal dividers on public benches on the Mathias Mitchell Public Square.

Tiffani Krueger, co-founder of Evergreen Committee Initiatives, called the newly installed metal strips “anti-homeless devices.”

Krueger has served on the city’s Housing Taskforce but feels the group’s efforts were for naught.

“Everything we put in front of the city was just ignored,” Krueger said. Then, pointing to the armrest, said, “This is ‘don’t sleep here, you’re not welcome.’ That’s the only purpose of this device. This is not okay. This is not how we want to raise our children. Sleeping is a federal right. What Stevens Point is doing is illegal. Look it up.”

Lt. Joe Johnson from the Stevens Point Police Department said the city’s streets department installed the metal strips about a month ago, based on “a consensus from all city departments after constituent feedback.”

Johnson referred all additional questions to Mayor Mike Wiza, but Police Chief Bob Kussow has previously trold the Metro Wire that he’s taken a number of complaints from business owners in the downtown area about the presence of homeless people near their shops.

On Sunday, two business owners in the downtown also expressed concerns about the homeless population, citing trash buildup and public drug use, but neither agreed to go on the record or permitted the Metro Wire to use their names in this story.

The mayor’s reply

In his statement, which he placed on social media before sending to the press, Wiza said he wants everyone in the Stevens Point community to feel safe and welcome.

“One person’s rights stop, however, when it encroaches on another person’s rights,” Wiza’s press release reads in part. “For months now, we’ve received comments and concerns from people who have not felt safe in our community. I received a call from a concerned mother whose daughter is attending school here and works as a server downtown. She walks home to her apartment through the downtown area and doesn’t feel safe. I’m told she was even yelled at. This is not acceptable.”

Wiza said another woman told him that she and a friend visited the downtown area recently but were unable to sit down and rest “because the people using the benches took up the whole bench and had things scattered all around. They wound up going home.”

Wiza also said that police, streets, and parks departments have all responded to a “large number” of complaints related to the homeless problem in the downtown area.

“Our public spaces are for everyone to use, without feeling uncomfortable or even fearful, and most use that space respectfully. But there seems to almost always be a few that take advantage of things and part of our job is making sure that those spaces remain safe and welcoming for everyone,” he said.

But he dismissed claims that the city was ignoring the issue. The Housing Taskforce did identify some changes to the city’s zoning code that “may help a bit, but there is no magic solution.”

The city has also worked closely with private groups, like the Salvation Army, Evergreen Community Initiatives, One Big Tent, Operation Bootstrap, and others to set up warming centers, temporary shelters and food banks. The city also has “dedicated” mental health officers, Wiza said, but he did not elaborate.

“We’ve even paid for temporary shelters or transportation costs in emergencies,” he said.

The county’s response

County Executive John Pavelski, who was called out during Sunday’s rally, said he welcomes “constructive criticism and workable suggestions for improvement.”

“My suggestion for people who want to make a difference is to research solutions that have worked elsewhere in other similar communities and then look to see how to implement those solutions locally. Contrary to the popular saying, yes, you do usually have to bring up a problem before you have a solution, but you do eventually have to come forward with a solution or you will never move forward. Telling people that ‘you should do something’ is not a solution,” Pavelski said.

He added that the root causes of homelessness are “almost as varied as the people who are going through that situation.”

“Researcher Howard Husock once wrote in Forbes that ‘the more individualized attention a problem calls for, the less well-suited government is to dealing with it—and the more likely that independent, charitably supported groups can help,’ and nothing could be more true,” Pavelski said.

He also pointed to the slow pace of local government, which has rules and limitations which he also finds frustrating at times.

“But where county government can assist, I will do my best to grease the skids. There are over 70,000 people living in this county. I’m proud of where I live. We are a naturally generous people and a welcoming community. We are not restricted by acting solely through government action,” Pavelski said. “I am confident that where there is a will, there is a way. Charities, private individuals, and organizations can really leverage their resources and tailor their programs, and offer outreach to individuals in a way that local government just doesn’t do effectively. Sometimes the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let philanthropists, concerned and compassionate citizens work.”

Pavelski said he’s willing to meet with concerned citizens to “look for a legal, healthy, compassionate, effective and productive solution to the situations we as a community find ourselves in,” but he added that social media comment sections “are not a method of effective communication if you actually want to solve a problem in my experience,” and asked residents to contact him by email or phone instead.

Some are skeptical

Stevens Point resident Nancy Havlovick said she’s angered over the bench alterations and believes that politics stands in the way of progress.

“When the bench thing happened, it just broke everybody that saw it. It was so much bigger than the bench. We are fighting the city, and the city alone; we are not fighting our community,” she said.

Havlovick also suggested gathering a larger group and conducting marches and sit-ins, adding she was “ready to take over the library in the winter” because it was heated and empty at night.

“What are they going to do? Throw me in their jail? Who cares? Jail isn’t so bad, is it, for the right cause?” She said.