Homeless issue needs a community-wide solution

Union Democrat staff /

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.

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