The will itself have a new home after the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a relocation of homeless services to a State Pier Road church.
The commission approved a special permit requested by the HHC to locate its daytime service and support operations, as well as an overnight shelter currently housed in the , at the . The plan calls for a 25-bed shelter, a common area, and a health outreach program run by the in the church building. Transportation services will shuttle people between the and the center, due to the newly increased distance between the meal center and the HHC. The rectory, which is currently unoccupied, will house offices and social services for the HHC and not have any overnight accommodations.
“I think this is great,” said Cathy Zall, executive director of the HHC, which currently operates out of the original building of the . “I think we’ve finally found a place that is affordable and workable for us and lets us cooperate with the city.”
The HHC was formerly denied when it tried to move operations to locations on either Federal Street or Jefferson Avenue. Supporters of the plan said part of the goal of the move is to consolidate services—including showers, mail, and health and counseling resources—in one place to avoid duplication. Rev. Michel Belt of the St. James Episcopal Church, said the organizations have also had a goal to move out of the central business district.
“We’ve know, we’ve heard it many times, that being in the central business district presents issues,” said Belt.
Although the shelter is a reduction from the 50-bed capacity currently in place at the St. James Episcopal Church, the HHC says the “no freeze” policy would continue in the new location. This policy means the shelter does not turn down anyone seeking respite between Nov. 1 and April 1 due to concerns over exposure to cold temperature. The commission did not address this issue, and the HHC will have to apply to the City Council for an emergency ordinance to address it. Belt said the new location should also result in improved contact with clients, leading to a reduced demand for the overnight shelter.
The major renovations would take place at the church building, including the installation of an interior staircase and bathrooms. Exterior changes would include a fence between the property and the neighboring , exterior lighting, and security cameras.
According to a purchase and sale agreement, the HHC is proposing to buy the property from the Polish church for $275,000. The church would continue to hold services in a chapel space in the rectory. The HHC is also purchasing a strip of land from Faith Fellowship for $15,000 to allow pedestrian access from Huntington Street to the homeless center.
The Zoning Board of Appeals previously allowing the homeless center proposal to move forward despite the proximity of the Faith Fellowship playground. The conditional approval requires the creation of gate access for employees from the Faith Fellowship parking lot to the Polish church property as well as an approved fence or buffer between the properties.
Other speakers at Thursday’s meeting included Tim Bates, an attorney for HHC; Alejandro Melendes-Cooper, director of the New London CHC; Ted Olynciw, a board member at the HHC; and Bill Stanley, vice president of development and community relations at . Stanley said that although the hospital does not turn patients away, it has been working with homeless advocates to attempt to reduce the number of visits of homeless patients to avoid creating a “makeshift homeless shelter” at the hospital, a condition he said ties up beds and staff. He said the hospital plans to support the move with a $50,000 contribution.
Some concerns were raised during the hearing. Commission member Wayne Vendetto said he was worried that the HHC policy allows violent visitors back into the shelter after a one-night ban. Shonda Harrison, a property manager at the low-income Winthrop Square Apartments adjacent to the church, worried that the creation of a homeless center would increase incidents of trespassing on the apartments’ property. Clark van der Lyke asked that interior elements and historical aspects of the church be preserved, even if only by photographs, before the renovations take place.
“History and tradition are too often lost in New London,” he said.
Zall said the one-night ban policy applies to homeless people using the emergency “no freeze” overflow, but that violence by people using the shelter is not tolerated. She said trespassing should not be an issue, as the pedestrians using the shelter would have to make a significant detour to approach via State Pier Road and are more likely to use Huntington Street.
Eleanor Butler, a former member of the commission, said she supported the relocation.
“Use your hearts. Approve this application,” she said. “Because what I like about New London is we care about our neighbors.”
Bates agreed to strike a special permit application for shared parking with Faith Fellowship after the commission determined that parking would not be an issue. Chairman Mark Christiansen proposed waiving the application fee in exchange for the HHC agreeing to put up an all-season fence or buffer between the property and the Winthrop Square Apartments, and Bates also agreed to that condition.
The HHC plans to start a fundraising campaign to move ahead with the purchase of the properties and the renovation of the buildings. Until that time, operations will continue at the All Souls and St. James locations and the Polish church will continue to hold services in the church building.