Some would be tempted to dismiss last week’s Sonora Planning Commission rejection of a proposed winter-weather homeless shelter for men at the Red Church Parish Hall as short-sighted, insensitive and parochial.
Others might see the commission’s unanimous decision as the final word on the community’s homeless problem. And a few might be relieved, thinking that this uncomfortable, difficult issue won’t be aired again in public any time soon.
The reality, however, is something else altogether.
First, the Planning Commission had reasonable grounds on which to reject the shelter plan, proposed by Lighthouse Ministries, a coalition of community churches. Its location, on the St. James Anglican Church grounds at the north end of Washington Street, is not only one of the city’s landmark tourist attractions, but a place dozens of students walk by daily on their way to Sonora High School.
Safety was a key concern, and the city’s community development director said the plan would be “injurious to the neighborhood.”
Even Beetle Barbour, housing coordinator with the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, conceded that the location would not be the best.
That said, planners didn’t dismiss the homeless problem. “This is heart-tearing,” said Commissioner John Richardson. “This is needed badly. I hope something else can be done on a big scale.”
Other members stressed that the denial was “without prejudice,” meaning they would consider a revised application.
But the Rev. Wolfgang Krismanits, Lighthouse’s president and St. James pastor won’t be tweaking his proposal or appealing the commission decision to the City Council. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, he’ll look elsewhere to help those who have no walls.
Don’t bet against him: It was Father Wolf who opened his church to the cold and the homeless four years ago, incurring the displeasure of some parishioners and, eventually, a shutdown notice from the city on grounds the building did not meet standards for such a use.
He then formed Lighthouse Ministries with a number of fellow pastors, and launched a search aimed at helping homeless men, deemed most in need of aid. So far Lighthouse has looked at several buildings, including the Holman Theater building on South Washington Street, the old Sonora Community Hospital campus, the former Simply Country furniture store on Stockton Road.
Each proved to be a dead end, but Krismanits persisted. He is now eying the old Behavioral Health headquarters on Stockton Road and considering a number of buildings that might accommodate smaller numbers of homeless men on a rotating basis.
His search continues as the days become shorter, the nights colder and numbers in need higher.
“It’s an enormous problem right now,” said Barbour, adding that a particularly bad winter could make shelter “a matter of life or death” for the old or infirm.
Father Wolf’s dedication to this cause is remarkable. He lives his Christian faith like few among us do.
But Krismanits can’t do it alone. Homelessness is a community-wide problem and deserves community-wide attention.
Yes, some of the homeless live under the radar and want to keep it that way. Others, hardened by night after cold night in elements, would rather steal a sleeping bag than spend the night in a shelter. Bad luck and bad breaks are all that separate a number of the homeless from the rest of us.
But bitter cold and driving rains play no favorites, and Krismanits estimates that at least 20 men would show up nightly once a shelter’s doors open.
He deserves the community’s support and participation in opening those doors.