Although Newton City Commissioners did not make a final decision on the future of the Harvey County Homeless Shelter, they did vote to extend a moratorium on the construction of new shelter facilities until the Newton/North Newton Area Planning Commission could finish working on its recommendations.
Commissioner Ken Hall said drafting the recommendations has been a major project for the Planning Commission, and he wanted to give the group enough time to complete their research.
"I think we’ve gone this far, we might as well continue the process," he said. “... I hate to stop in something two-thirds of the way through.”
The issue of the new homeless shelter has been a topic of discussion and debate in Newton the past six months.
The Harvey County Homeless Shelter is planning to construct a new facility at the site of the old Bethel Hospital. The proposed site for the new shelter is near a residential neighborhood, and residents of the neighborhood have voiced some concerns about the project.
Property owners have said they are concerned it might not be safe to place the shelter in an area with children and families and said they feared there could be an increase in crime in the neighborhood.
Homeless shelter board members have said they have a legal right to build and operate a shelter at the site. The shelter already has spent $100,000 of donor money to purchase the vacant lot.
At a previous meeting, Newton City Commissioners voted to effectively put the homeless shelter project on hold while the issue was explored in greater detail. They approved an ordinance creating the requirement of a license to operate a temporary shelter (homeless shelter) in the city and imposed a moratorium on the issuance of such licenses for six months pending the study of this issue by the Newton/North Newton Area Planning Commission.
Ronald Eggert, vice-chair of the Planning Commission, reported the group has conducted numerous meetings and workshops to study the issue. They plan to have a public hearing at their April 1 meeting, and to send a group residence ordinance to the City Commission April 9.
He said the public was invited to attend the Planning Commission's meetings on the topic, and the meetings were well attended.
“I personally have been very impressed by the things the citizens of Newton have given us to consider," he said.
Jan Jones, executive director of the Harvey County Safe House, said her organization also will be impacted by the group residence ordinance and urged the City Commission to extend the moratorium.
“With the community investing in many hours already, it would be a huge loss if we were not able to complete this process," she said. "... As a member of this community, we will continue to positively participate in looking at ways to alleviate possible negative impacts and/or adverse effects upon other property uses and our neighborhood and this community."
Jim Elliott, a member of the homeless shelter board, also attended the meeting, and he said the shelter wants to works with the community on this issue.
“We are making a lot of effort within our shelter to make sure that we’re taking care of the community," he said. "Because we do care a lot about our neighbors, about our community, and about the people who stay in our facility.”
He said the shelter isn't about simply handing out money, a practice he said actually can reinforce negative behavior. The goal is to help those without homes to find jobs and learn to sustain themselves.
He said the shelter respects those who have raised concerns.
“We want to work with these neighbors," he said. "... I am a person who cares about what’s going on around us."