NORWICH – The group organizing a proposed warming center for the homeless in Norwich said before yesterday they had never heard of the petition opposing it, signed by at least 52 residents and endorsed by the city mayor.
Leaders from Catholic Charities of Chenango County said they were surprised by the news. Just 10 days ago on Oct. 18, the City of Norwich Common Council held discussions about the local issue of homelessness and the warming center with officials and residents.
At the meeting the Chenango County Department of Social Services talked about an “exponential increase” in the number of homeless people using a local cold weather program, known as “Code Blue,” since it was mandated by the state in 2016.
The order forces rural counties to house people in freezing weather, even if they refuse to follow rules or stop using drugs, by either building homeless shelters or paying to place the homeless in local hotels. Chenango County has no homeless shelter.
DSS Commissioner Dan Auwarter said every available hotel room in the county might be occupied.
As an alternative, Catholic Charities and DSS supported an overnight warming center at 34 Berry Street, which was the former Roots & Wings location. The location can support up to 10 people.
The center will be active November to March and kept operational even if it was above 32 degrees.
Location and public safety concerns
Mayor Brian Doliver said the group organizing the petition opposing it would likely present it at the next council meeting on November 1. Doliver said a number of residents had expressed concern.
“I do not feel that it’s a good location, and I feel like a lot of people agree with that. But that’s one of the reasons they’re entertaining that location, because they own it,” he said.
“I have talked to some of them, they all have similar concerns about the people who would be in their neighborhood, the concerns about them walking to the warming station and what that would entail,” said Doliver. “I think that Catholic Charities did talk to them a lot about it, and I think that at the end of the day, Catholic Charities would like to have it there because it’s their building.”
Doliver said the residents expressed concern about public safety.
The petition reads:
“Petition to Stop the Proposed Catholic Charities Warming Center Project at 34 Berry Street.
“To the Mayor and the Common Council Members of the City of Norwich.
“We undersigned residents of the neighborhood are opposed to the proposed plan by Catholic Charities to utilize the property of 34 Berry Street for a Warming Center.
“Our petition respectfully requests that the Common Council and Mayor do not approve the proposed special zoning permit to allow for this project to happen at the location of 34 Berry Street in our residential area.
“We believe that this is a direct violation of our public safety as taxpayers and members of our neighborhood/community.
“We suggest that another location more appropriately zoned be located, vetted and secured for this project instead.”
Doliver said he shared residents' concerns.
“Some of the concerns about people coming to the warming center were, are they going to be on drugs, are there going to be issues with them walking there - like are they going to be getting into people’s garages, that sort of thing. They were concerned that they would be concentrating in that neighborhood to go to the warming center at night,” he said.
“This is a brand new thing, and this is something that I feel we need to do – but obviously this isn’t something that we [the city] do normally. Our job is public safety, and that’s our main job, so I’m very concerned about it too. I’m concerned about the location especially.
“It’s the unknown, mostly. The planning board has agreed – they are an advisement committee – but they have agreed to a special permit that will go to the common council,” explained Doliver. “So the joint committee will hear this, they can agree to accept it as is, they can decline it, they can table it, or they can even give it a special short-term permit. So there’s a number of things they can do.”
Doliver said he would sign the petition.
“I would support the petition for the location issue. Do I agree that we should do something like this? I do. I think that Catholic Charities is a great organization. They are very well meaning in what they are doing, and I support them 100 percent. I just wish we had the ability to do a different location,” he said.
Asked about the recent discussions and finding a solution for the local community, Doliver said, “It’s a rabbit hole. I don’t think there’s anyone out there, whether you’re on the right, left, middle or wherever you come from, that would disagree that the best solution would be to keep people off of the street. They would get up every day and go to work; they’d have jobs. That would be the perfect scenario - but it’s a little more complicated.
“I think that the drug problem has played a huge part in the issues. So this is going to be a long-term fix. If you start throwing money at the situation, there could be a good and bad risk. There’s a lot of things that you can do as a temporary fix, but the long-term, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing.
“We’re a really great community, and there are a lot of people that care a lot about this issue.”
Operations Director for Catholic Charities Jeff Cheesboro said the group received emails and calls from a few neighbors and hosted a public meeting in early October with a few of the aldermen and the mayor, and there was roughly between 20 and 25 residents from that neighborhood who attended.
“We couldn’t reach everybody, naturally. It was mostly the alderman for that respective ward that reached out to the people who had been concerned and had reached out to him, and then through word of mouth a few more people showed up,” he said.
Catholic Charities representatives traveled to Oneonta and reached out to other warming centers in the region to learn what other places are doing.
“Basically, the concept sounded like a pretty solid, not solution, but at least something to assist us with some of the Code Blue population. It was sort of a stop-gap measure,” Cheesboro said.
Catholic Charities Executive Director Robin Cotter said despite supporting the warming center, and contrary to local gossip, Catholic Charities was not in the business of homeless shelters.
“We believe in supports, something that is supervised, and helping people move up and out. Giving them that hand up,” she said.
She said the group had worked with local officials since at least June and had tried to keep people informed. They thought it was proceeding with relative consensus for months until more recent concerns were raised.
Catholic Charities prepared and circulated documents explaining what a warming center was and how the local one might operate, as far as staffing and security measures.
They estimated 50 households surrounding the immediate area were reached.
“I received a couple of calls and emails after that with people stating concerns, and I met with a few of the most vocal residents in that area a few times,” said Cheesboro.
Despite the petition Cheesboro said the project had come too far and was needed soon. He said Catholic Charities was not planning on abandoning plans, and it would be up to the council to decide what was best for the community.