We’ve spent the past few years attending meeting after meeting here, often wondering if there was any political issue that could possibly bring out any passion from local residents. Who would have guessed that passion would finally be released yesterday at a hearing of the planning commission to consider a zoning variance request. Sometimes Warren will surprise you.
The issue is this: The Warren Family Mission (WFM) bought the old Christ Our King Church on Tod Avenue SW at auction last year, with the intention of making it a shelter primarily for for woman and children. Many of the church’s neighbors in the 6th Ward were against the idea from the beginning and have only become more opposed as WFM expanded the scope of its plans to include serving homeless people and people with disabilities — including alcoholics and drug users.
More than 75 people packed Council Chambers as Mayor Franklin, Enzo Cantalamessa and the three private citizens who make up the planning commission heard arguments for and against WFM’s plans and variance request #14-05. (The Tribune has a good write up by Raymond Smith this morning for more details.) The crowd was mostly older and mostly African-American, reflecting the 6th Ward neighborhood’s demographics.
The “opposed” spoke first and a dozen speakers expressed their feelings, which can be summarized as follows:
“The mission is a good thing, we support the mission, but we do not want it in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood already has too many problems with disrespectful kids, loud music, drugs, and crime. That building is too close to Jefferson Elementary School and the people who will patronize it represent a risk to the kids. Having this in our neighborhood will lower our already depressed property values. Put it someplace else.“
The anti-group was led by 6th Ward Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold who gave a fiery speech in opposition, reminding the commission that she had been fighting the WFM plans for more than a year and had presented a petition with more than 500 signatures in opposition.
It was a strong and emotional presentation from the opposition forces, but it was just the beginning. WFM supporters were no less emotional nor less numerous in number, and it was now their turn. They too had more than a dozen speakers in support including several former clients helped by the mission. One man talked of having put a gun to his head in desperation for his condition in life before the mission saved him. Several single mothers talked about how the WFM was the only thing that saved them and their children from homelessness.
The final two speakers summarized the WFM position. Pastor Chris Gilger said he quit a government job with benefits in 1998 to start the mission, despite have 6 kids and no benefits in his new venture. He then used $43,000 of his own money to to keep the mission going the first two years. He reminded the crowd that with every facility the mission has opened, crime has gone down in the surrounding neighborhood. He reminded the opposition that they like the good the mission does and that they should understand that,
“We aren’t going to bring crime and criminals and trouble to your neighborhood; we are bringing help for the troubled and the troubles that are already there.”
Gilger claimed that according to public records, 180 registered sex offenders currently live in the 6th Ward, and “We didn’t put them there, but maybe we can show them a different path in life.”
The final speaker was Attorney Gil Rucker, who made the legal case in support, siting the Federal Fair Housing Act and a couple of Supreme Court decisions that, to the layman, sounded very persuasive on the side of WFM. Rucker reminded the crowd that it was not many years ago that arguments similar to those presented by the WFM’s opposition were used to keep blacks and other minorities from living in certain places. “We’re all for them — just not in our neighborhood. They will bring down property values and bring crime to our neighborhoods.” We remember hearing those same arguments back in the ’60′s and even later. If this goes to the courts we would not want to have to defend those kind of arguments. If the variance is denied and WFM sues the city it could result in an expensive round of court costs. Money Warren does not have. The city is already in court fighting an attempt to operate a group home for recovering addicts on the NE side in a neighborhood that is not zoned for such use.
That seems to be the issue most concerning the planning commission, which voted 4-1 to table the request pending a legal opinion from the Warren Law Department.
The Mayor, who must at least appear to be neutral as he sits as a judge in this matter, became visibly emotional during his summary when talking about his own son who suffers from certain disabilities. We wish for him the courage to do the right thing. Both Councilwoman Saffold and Councilwoman-at-large Helen Rucker spoke in opposition of the WFM plan. The opposition are the kind of people who never miss a vote — or an opportunity to remind politicians that they vote.
No politician spoke for the Warren Family Mission. The homeless and the hungry are less likely to vote, we guess.