The Butler Homeless Initiative is hoping to locate their shelter at the current Blue Spruce Motel, located at 2058 SE Hwy 54, east of El Dorado.

The goal of purchasing this facility has brought those supporting and opposing the plan to the El Dorado Planning Commission and Butler County Commission meetings recently.

The Butler Homeless Initiative is hoping to locate their shelter at the current Blue Spruce Motel, located at 2058 SE Hwy 54, east of El Dorado.

The goal of purchasing this facility has brought those supporting and opposing the plan to the El Dorado Planning Commission and Butler County Commission meetings recently.

A public hearing was held for a request by BHI to rezone the property from residential suburban to general commercial at the El Dorado Planning Commission meeting on March 27. Then on Tuesday, several people spoke during the public comment portion of the Butler County Commission meeting.

Melody Gault, BHI president, told the Planning Commission they have a contract to purchase that property to establish transitional housing.

According to the minutes from the Planning Commission meeting, Gault told the commissioners this location has been operating as transitional housing and a move forward with this as a shelter would be beneficial to the community.

In the plans, the existing apartment on the property would be converted to a common area. The common area will be for office space, education classes, computers so they can apply for jobs, case management services and resources, as well as a small worship area.

“The main point that we want to make is if the Butler Homeless Initiative manages a property it is going to have very strict policies and procedures, rules and guidelines in place,” Gault said during a recent interview. “It’s always a good option when you have that many rules governing an organization. It should put people’s minds to ease that there would be that many rules governing an organization.

“One of the positives is it provides separate private rooms for individuals and families,” Gault continued. “If a mother and small children are there it is a good scenario and not them sharing one big room and sharing showers. It provides an opportunity for community involvement: rooms could be adopted for maintenance or remodeling. It also can be handicap accessible.”

A concern for several was how those staying at the facility would get into town for needed services, groceries or to look for a job.

Gault said they had plans to purchase a van or bus to transport people to the appointments they have.

Debby Work, the real estate agent for BHI, said during the public hearing BHI has located a 15-passenger bus, which would be purchased once they had a location.

Several residents in the area also voiced opposition to the plan during the public hearing.

Tim Donges stated at the Planning Commission he had employed homeless people in the past and he reiterated those concerns at the County Commission meeting Tuesday.

“One thing about the homeless is a lot of them have mental health issues, criminal backgrounds, some are sex offenders,” he told the County Commission. “What’s the effect going to be on the overall neighborhood? We’re going to bring a homeless problem to the Prospect area. They’ll come with their emotional baggage like mental health problems and addictive behaviors. We don’t have any interest in having this facility in our neighborhood. The problem I see is that it will be concentrating the homeless problem and increasing the potential for crime. I’m 100 percent against it. I don’t want this in my neighborhood.”

Other concerns he expressed before the Planning Commission was for real estate values in the area and sex offenders who might stay at the facility with kids living in the area.

Work said later they cannot provide shelter to a sex offender if there are children in the facility, which would be likely. She said the majority of the people they have helped so far are women with children, a majority of whom are from El Dorado and two from Augusta. Of all of those people, only two did not have transportation.

During the Planning Commission Tim also pointed out two other communities in the county, Towanda and Andover, passed resolutions in support of this type of facility and wanted to know why it was not being located in one of those facilities.

Natalie Donges also expressed concerns before both commissions, stating she did not think it would benefit the community. Another concern she had was if the BHI would rent out rooms and the existing RV spaces behind the motel for money, stating she did not think the BHI should be competing with local businesses. Natalie told the Planning Commission businesses in the Prospect area were not in favor of the project, although they were not present at the meeting. She also was concerned about background checks of the tenants and if they would be walking along the highway, which could be dangerous.

She expressed further concerns to the County Commission, saying, “I have had several of the people the homeless initiative have considered homeless brought to the apartments I manage. They did not meet my criteria. One was a registered sex offender. Another received social security payments in the amount of $700 a month. The rent in my apartments is $400 and does not cover gas or other utilities. I’m not saying they’re not helping them at all, but they’re setting them up for failure. It would make more sense to get them into another facility that has lower rent. I don’t believe this facility will promote growth in our area.”

Myrna Byfield also was concerned about transportation and asked during the Planning Commission how many people would be served at the facility.

According to city ordinance, they could have a maximum of 30 tenants. They could stay up to four months, assuming they are meeting specific requirements. They will have to check in and follow the BHI management plan, as well as go through a background check. Rooms would be inspected periodically for contraband. During the day, BHI will help tenants find a job and take them to interviews. They also would be transported to social services if that was needed. Gault said most of the people they help have vehicles.

Looking at how long they would be allowed to stay, there is a three-day preliminary stay and then they begin working with a case manager setting short- and long-term goals. Those not meeting goals would have to leave. Once the four months is up, if a person is meeting all of the goals, the BHI Board can extend the stay of the individual or assist them in rent until they are on their feet.

According to the Planning Commission minutes, Gault said BHI wants individuals who use the facility to become productive members of the community.

Another concern Byfield stated was about what tenants would do during the day when the shelter was closed, as well as concerns with lighting, security, difficulty to supervise and safety to staff volunteers. Other concerns she voiced were fire liability issues, building codes, transporting kids to school and water and sewer use at the facility. A final concern of hers was this shelter is for Butler County and not just homeless in El Dorado so it should be more centrally located.

She also addressed these concerns before the County Commission, saying, “If you have homeless that need shelter on a cold winter night, will they walk? This is not a centrally located area. The City of El Dorado does not want them within the core area. They don’t want them in their areas for development for business, but I think it won’t look good to have the homeless walking the highways either. This area, I don’t think it’s fair to those that are homeless to isolate them out like that. I don’t think it’s fair to the volunteers or the neighbors in that area already there, or any other businesses that are out there or that might decide to establish themselves.”

She also voiced concerns to the county about safety issues.

“The units are located back to back and there are not any emergency exits to those rooms,” Byfield said. “Volunteers – they want to have a minimum two at a time. They want to manage the doors of the facility. It would be hard to keep track of who is coming and going. They claim they will have background checks on all residents. I asked what disqualifies them and I never did get an answer. There are so few places to walk it’s just not fair to place this burden on the Prospect area. Most neighbors are remote. We’re not in a situation where we can look out for each other. That makes me feel unsafe.”

Wanda Stewart also addressed the Planning Commission in support of the plan. According to the minutes, she said she was there in memory of her husband, Stan, who was a member of BHI and was passionate about the initiative. She stated the need for a shelter and encouraged the BHI mission.

Work addressed several of the concerns voiced during the Planning Commission discussion when they asked for her response.

The facility will have a security system with cameras, the current owners have upgraded the water and sanitary sewer system on the site. The facility also will be brought up to code.

According to Work, the purchase contract depends on the approval of the Planning Commission and El Dorado City Commission. She said the facility meets the BHI budget and will be financed by the current owners. She said it was difficult to find a property within their budget.

According to the Planning Commission minutes, Jon Walker, one of the owners of the motel, said they have entered into a contract to sell the property to BHI. He also addressed some misconceptions about the facility stated earlier.

He said there are other organizations in the community that help individuals stay at the facility now, and they do not currently do background checks.

“For many, many, many years they have sheltered homeless people and those rooms have been paid for by the Salvation Army, United Way and churches so it has already been used as a homeless hotel for some time,” Work explained during a later interview. “The change of ownership there would actually have more stringent rules and regulations that would be required of the owners to operate it as a homeless shelter rather than a motel.”

She also pointed out BHI could buy it and operate it as a hotel, then they would not be required to do a lot of things they would have to as a homeless shelter.

Operating as a shelter, would allow BHI to apply for grant money to do certain upgrades that a motel could not get.

“By changing owners, you end up with zoning and a special use permit you are able to change to be a safer environment,” Work continued. “It is not a change of purpose, but able to offer more security than they are required to right now.”

She said the perspective on what they were working toward was lost during the Planning Commission meeting.

Currently, 60 to 75 percent of those who stay at the motel do not have transportation and often stay there for a couple of nights up to a couple of weeks. Walker said RVs have been there because those people do not have anywhere else to go, to which Natalie said just because someone lives in an RV that does not make them homeless.

“Stipulations say that every full-time RVer is homeless,” she reiterated to the County Commission. “I do not believe this is true. As a business owner, I do not think this is fair.”

In addition to working toward a shelter, the BHI has applied for and received grants to assist individuals with rent and utilities and have assisted 40 individuals find a home.

Gault also said at the Planning Commission meeting there were approximately 150 homeless in the area based on data from area agencies.

It was asked by the Planning Commission why they didn’t find a facility in one of the other communities supporting them.

Gault said they looked into Augusta but chose El Dorado because most of the social services are located here.

Planning Commissioners had differing views, with Commissioner Steve Funk saying it was not the right property for the reasons stated, while Commissioner Fred Britain said they would have the same concerns on any property in El Dorado and this location was already the same type of use. Commissioner Gerald Watson also felt the property was too far from town.

A motion by the Planning Commission was made to approve the special use permit and it failed 2-3. Britian and Allen Potter voted in favor and Funk, Gregg Lewis and Watson voted against the motion. Commissioners Dan Hill, Scott Leason, Brad Long and Van Pooler were absent.

The County Commission will be making a recommendation to the El Dorado City Commission on if that use conforms or not. Usually this recommendation would have been made to the Planning Commission, but there was a mix-up prior to the meeting.

The city was supposed to notify the county of the meeting 20 days prior to the public hearing by certified mail, but the county was not actually notified until after the hearing.

“We have had that happen before with our interlocal agreement with Augusta,” said County Administrator Will Johnson of the mistake. “It was a simple mistake that was made. I don’t think it will have any impact.”

He said if the County Commission finds the zoning change is not in conformance with the comprehensive plan it forces of a super majority of the City Planning Commission to approve the request.

“Since it was denied (by the Planning Commission) it does not have any bearing on the case,” Johnson explained of the county’s decision.

He did think it was important the City Commission knew what the county’s response was before they took action.

He said even if the County Commission said they are OK with the request, that is not a trigger for the City Commission to approve it based on the county recommendation since the Planning Commission denied it. It will just tell the city if the use conforms to the county’s plan or not. The County will determine if it does conform or not on Tuesday.

Assistant City Engineer Scott Rickard said they were following procedure and would hear recommendations from the Planning Commission and County Commission before the issue is taken to the City Commission during their meeting April 21. He also said city staff had recommended approval of the special use permit, although the Planning Commission did not give its approval.

“The process is going forward as it should,” Rickard said.

Another thing Work said the BHI is looking into is appealing the decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals. An appeal can be made after the issue has gone to the City Commission and they have made a decision with which the BHI does not agree.

“I think everybody needs to have their voice heard however they believe,” Gault said in an interview. “We know that we have homeless in our area. We know that they’re already here in our community. We need to be the best community we can be and help those in need.”

She said they are Christ centered and want to share Christ with those whom they come in contact.

Gault read a quote Wanda Stewart had found that her late husband, Stan, had written down, stating: “The character of our city is judged in a large part in how we treat our citizens that need help. We can be better. Let us reinforce the idea that El Dorado is truly a city of character.”