A longtime advocate for increased services for the homeless wants to have a question on the April ballot asking voters to make funding the issue a top priority.
Steve Ozark, vice chairman of the Coalition on Homeless Concerns and the coordinator for the Interfaith Initiative, has asked city commissioners to give voters in the April city elections an opportunity to support additional funding for homeless and poverty-related programs.
"What I'm really asking is if we're going to take care of the working poor and the mentally ill and the homeless, or are we going to say it is really not worth the money?" Ozark asked. "I'm really trying to figure out the will of the city on this issue."
City commissioners have not acted on the request. Mayor Mike Amyx on Wednesday said he would place the issue on the city commission's agenda in the next couple months. Amyx, though, said he's not sure he could support the request. He said he thought the city commission instead should have a discussion about priorities.
"We have to start being honest with ourselves about our budgeting process," Amyx said. "We say over and over again that we have these big-ticket priority items, but the honesty part is us telling people what year we're going to be able to accomplish them."
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Exact wording for a possible ballot question hasn't been developed by Ozark. An annual dollar amount also hasn't been developed, although the city-appointed Community Commission on Homelessness has unsuccessfully asked for as much as $900,000 a year in previous city budgets.
Ozark said he's grown frustrated that there has been significant talk about holding elections for other city priorities - such as a new $30 million library, a new recreation complex or additional sales taxes to support street improvements - but little talk of how to fund major social service plans that would help the homeless and the working poor of the city.
Amyx, though, said the city has made strides to try to address the homeless issues. The city, in its 2007 budget, has set aside more than $250,000 to distribute to the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Salvation Army and the Lawrence Community Shelter to use for homeless programs, including the funding of four outreach workers.
Members of the Community Commission on Homelessness also said they weren't certain now was the right time to have an election on increasing city funding for homelessness and poverty.
The organization is working on preparing a report that would provide details on what a new homeless shelter in the community would look like and what services it would provide. Helen Hartnett, a member of the homelessness commission, said that information probably would be important for people to have before voting on any new funding.
"What we have to help the community understand is that the current facilities are not adequate, and any new facilities would be much different and produce different results," Hartnett said.
Shirley Martin-Smith, chairwoman of the Community Commission on Homelessness, said she understood the frustration of Ozark, who is a former member of the homelessness commission, but added that she thought the issue was still receiving adequate attention from city leaders.
"He and a lot of other people have worked hard to get the issue to the forefront, but I believe it is still at the forefront," she said.
County Clerk Jamie Shew said the City Commission can place an issue on the April ballot. He said Ozark also could try to get enough signatures on a valid petition to force the issue on the ballot, as long as the ballot question proposed a specific course of action.
Shew said state law would require signatures from 25 percent of registered voters in the city, which would mean a petition of nearly 15,000 signatures.
Town hall meeting
The Coalition on Homeless Concerns will host its third annual Town Hall meeting on Homelessness from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. Steve Ozark, vice chairman of the volunteer group, said leaders of the various agencies serving the homeless have been invited to speak about accomplishments of the past year and concerns about the future. The event is open to the public.