Local businesses respond to shelter petition backlash

Shelter backlash
Over the past several days, a number of Iowa City businesses have either rescinded their support for the petition, or clarified their views on the matter. — photo by Adam Burke

When word began to spread last week that a number of Iowa City businesses signed a petition requesting the city deny funding for a temporary homeless shelter on Gilbert Street, outrage and confusion on behalf of community members quickly followed.

The shelter, which would operate at the former Aldi location (1534 S. Gilbert St.) through February 2015, is the result of a collaboration between the Johnson County Local Homeless Coordinating Board and Shelter House (429 Southgate Ave.). The location itself would provide beds for 20-25 people, including those who are unwilling or unable to reside in the Shelter House, where sobriety is required. The Iowa City Council voted 7-0 on Dec. 16 to allocate up to $20,000 in support of the facility — a project expected to cost $67,000 in total.

However, the impact of the petition, which was filed prior to the city council’s Dec. 16 vote, was profound. Community members flooded social media to express their anger, both on their own profiles and the profiles of the businesses themselves. The subject of much ire, the petition itself is quite brief:

We the undersigned business owners and/or property owners hereby petition the City Council of Iowa City and City Staff to refrain from funding, participating in and/or providing any financial or other support for the creation and/or operation of any homeless shelter at any location other than the location now operated by Shelter House.

What follows is 37 signatures from 29 businesses (some businesses — such as Shear Madness and Outlaw Auto — included signatures from multiple employees). One of the most surprising (and perhaps disastrous) aspects of the petition, however, is its brevity. In addition to calling upon the city to deny funding to “any homeless shelter at any location other than the location now operated by Shelter House,” the petition fails to offer any sort of explanation for this divisive request.

And just as community members took to social media to weigh in, so too did some of the businesses that had signed the petition. On Sunday, Dec. 22, Marco’s Taxi — one of the signees — released a statement noting that an employee signed the petition without permission.

What’s more, owners Mark Paterno and Pete Johnson say they were completely unaware of the petition, stating that they have “no objection whatsoever to an additional homeless shelter anywhere in Iowa City at any time.” The full statement is as follows:

Dear Iowa City:

On behalf of Marco’s Taxi, I would like to clarify some points from the recent petition regarding a new homeless shelter for the winter months.

There are two owners of Marco’s Taxi and therefore only two authorized people that could sign any petition on our behalf. Neither owner of Marco’s Taxi signed this petition or were aware that a petition was circulating. An employee of our company who is not authorized to sign petitions of any kind on the company’s behalf signed it prior to discussing it or receiving permission from the owners to sign it.

Marco’s Taxi adamantly disagrees with the petition in its entirety and would never have signed it had we been made aware of it in the first place. We would never consider signing any petition that cuts any support to homeless shelters regardless of location. The official stance of Marco’s Taxi is that we have no objection whatsoever to an additional homeless shelter anywhere in Iowa City at any time.

As owners of Marco’s Taxi we take full responsibility for the error and have contacted the City of Iowa City to let them know that we wish to be removed from the petition. We sincerely apologize for any confusion or misunderstanding this may have caused. We wish the City of Iowa City and the supporters of the new homeless shelter the best in their endeavor to create a new shelter and we pledge our support for it.

Marco’s Taxi

Marco’s statement raises some obvious questions about the standards and practices used to acquire these signatures, all of which were collected on the same day — Dec. 16. Could this have happened elsewhere, at other businesses?

As it turns out, yes.

Management at Carlos O’Kellys — another signee — recounted a similar story.

“That’s exactly what happened here,” said Carlos O’Kelly’s general manager Ricky Wetmore. “I’m the general manager, and I was actually out running catering. I came back and my manager on duty said, right away, ‘I think I made a mistake,’ without even telling me what happened.”

Wetmore clarified that Carlos O’Kellys fully supports the temporary shelter on Gilbert Street, and has been in contact with corporate headquarters to reaffirm this stance.

“He was just kind of put on the spot, and he wasn’t authorized to say that in the name of [Carlos O’Kelly’s].” Wetmore said. “That person made a mistake.”

Car-X Auto Service owner and petition signee Craig Ash says he wants to stay out of the issue entirely, and isn’t sure how his name ended up on the petition. Ash says a visitor stopped by to discuss the issue and collect his signature, but he denies actually signing the document.

“Someone had told me, ‘Well, somebody put your name on a list that says you’re not for it.'” said Ash. “We’re not for it or against it — we’re neutral either way. That’s the last conversation I had with somebody on this.”

When asked whether or not he’s concerned that someone may have forged his signature, Ash seems perturbed, but not outraged. Later, he offers stronger words for the alleged forger before mentioning that he’s unsure of who came to visit that day.

“People that are doing that untruthfully, it’ll bite them later, because you can’t hide things forever,” he said. “It’s going to come out.”

And while some signees refute the petition entirely, others acknowledge that they did sign the document, but that their positions have since changed as they’ve learned more about the issue. Other signees say they support certain sentiments of the petition, but feel it was unclear and poorly worded, and regret signing the document in retrospect. And though some businesses refused to discuss the matter, none of the contacted signees offered blanket approval of the petition as of Dec. 22.

Diamond Vogel Paint Store co-owner and petition signee Justin Rios says that he has rescinded his support from the petition, but does not wish to clarify why.

“We’ll just leave it at that,” Rios said. “We’re neutral on the subject and we’ll leave it at that.” Rios says that he doesn’t know who came to visit his business on Dec. 16, and adds that he’s not sure who actually stopped by with the petition.

“I’ll put it to you this way,” he said. “I’d never seen the person before.”

At least three businesses say they were asked to sign the petition by landlord Dave Clark, a property owner on the Southeast side. Clark, however, could not be reached for comment at the time of publication (Little Village will update this story as needed). The majority of business owners, however, were unwilling to divulge who approached them with the petition.

Jeff McNutt of the McNutt Art Gallery, meanwhile, released a statement on Monday in similar fashion to that of Marco’s Taxi. McNutt acknowledges that he was initially a willing signee, in contrast to Marco’s, but has since rescinded his name from the petition and offered clarification.

“While I take responsibility for signing this document, it was never my intention to deny funding or shelter for the homeless,” he wrote.

The full statement from Jeff McNutt is as follows:

To the friends and fans in Iowa City,

I am writing to you concerning the petition last week for a temporary homeless shelter in Iowa City. Last week I believe I signed a petition to keep funding for the homeless exclusively at the Shelter House.

While I take responsibility for signing this document, it was never my intention to deny funding or shelter for the homeless. Today I filed with the City of Iowa City to have my name removed from the petition.

I also spent time this morning speaking with Mark Sertterh, Resident Services Director of the Shelter House. We cleared up some assumptions and misunderstandings. I wish I would’ve talked with Mark prior to signing. Thank you Mark for your time today.

I feel I am a charitable and kind person. For me to be accused of wanting someone to freeze to death is hurtful and offensive. To my family & friends who never doubted my character, Thank You.

Since 2007, I have provided artwork at 100% donation to over a dozen local charities as well as my gallery space for fundraising events. After speaking with Mark at the Shelter House, I will be donating artwork to their charity fundraiser and hope my efforts continue to support the community with a purity of heart I hold when working with anyone.

I hope this clears up any misconceptions people may have about my involvement in this matter.

When reached by phone Monday, McNutt further explained his rationale at the time.

“I take responsibility for what I did,” he said. “I signed this thing. But by no means did I ever think I was doing it to take shelter away from somebody. I was trying to do something that seemed like it was harmless and obvious — that they would want to keep the money in-house.” At the time, McNutt says he was thinking, “Why would they not want to keep everything at the Shelter House?”

McNutt says the fact that the temporary shelter would accept service-resistant individuals was a concern. However, he viewed the petition as means of retaining funds for the Shelter House, and attributes his initial support to a regretful misunderstanding.

Some businesses, meanwhile, expressed their support for the petition, but wished to clarify why they signed.

“It’s not that I’m against it 100 percent — I’m not,” said Ammo Bearer owner Michael Gerot. “I’m just against putting them all in one area.”

Gerot adds that he’s not at all against getting people help, and says the wording on the petition could have been better.

“It’s my fault I didn’t fully read it,” he said.

Gerot is unwilling to say who stopped by with the petition on Dec. 16, saying that he hopes to avoid further backlash.

“I’ve been catching a lot of flak. I’ve had a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails,” he said. “I’ve just been bombarded over this.”

Kathi and Harv Rundell — owners of Grizzly’s South Side and Harv’s Autobody respectively — also signed the petition, but say their intentions have been misconstrued.

“I’m not against helping people,” Kathi said. “I’m not against the homeless — I’m against the way the city is choosing to handle things. I do think there are other options out there other than just putting up a temporary shelter.”

Kathi says she was concerned about the shelter’s plans to admit those unwilling or unable to stay at Shelter House, citing concerns over safety, but notes that at the time she signed, it wasn’t clear what this actually entailed. Her thoughts were fixed more on hostile and potentially violent behavior rather than drug or alcohol abuse.

“I think sometimes they just look to the Southeast side because this can be a quick solution,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s right, but it doesn’t really matter to me if this was for any other location, either. I just don’t think it’s addressing the problem … I think there’s a lot of things that [we could support] other than just filling up a two-month long shelter.”

Shelter House Executive Director Crissy Canganelli acknowledged during last week’s city council meeting that the project is by no means a long-term solution, according to the Press-Citizen. Canganelli says the intention is, quite simply, to prevent homeless people from freezing to death.

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