NORWICH – At a Norwich Common Council meeting representatives declined to alter the city's zoning regulations to allow homeless warming shelters in residential neighborhoods.
The decision made Tuesday night is a major setback for a proposed warming center by Catholic Charities in the city, and will prohibit the proposal from moving forward. It would have established an overnight warming center on Berry Street. The site had been previously granted a permit by the planning board.
At the meeting Norwich Mayor Brian Doliver read a petition and presented it to the council on behalf of 60 local residents.
Part of the petition reads:“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.”
“My opposition is solely based on the location of the proposed warming station,” said Doliver. “The homeless situation is getting to the point we have to do something.”
Catholic Charities Executive Director Robin Cotter said the organization had never heard of the petition opposing it before last week. She also spoke at the meeting.
At an Oct. 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.
Proposal meets opposition
“Most of you have been involved with some core part of this process, so we believe you are familiar with it,” Cotter said.
She said Catholic Charities had met with the mayor in late June “to discuss a potential option to address the homelessness issue that continues to grow and overburden our existing systems within the city and surrounding areas.”
At the meeting Catholic Charities proposed a warming shelter as a possible option.
“This conversation was exploratory in nature, and while Catholic Charities was fully prepared to execute this programming should it gain the appropriate approvals, there was never any intent on the part of Catholic Charities to press this issue forward without any significant opposition, contrary to some belief," said Cotter.
The group met with residents and talked about the proposal in an hours-long meeting with the mayor and council at the time.
She said the group heard positive and negative comments about the project.
“However as a second part of this agreement with neighbors we had agreed to reconvene once we had more information and planned dates of city meetings to share with them so that they could be involved in every part of this process,”Cotter said.
“We also promised the residents that should they not be supportive of the use of this location after they had all of the information that we would not continue to pursue this location. Catholic Charities had every intent in keeping all of our promises to that community,” she said.
She said she only heard about the petition recently and was informed of the meeting this week the day before.
She told the board she hoped to “Raise your awareness to issues that have not only caused concern throughout a wonderful community of people, it has also placed our local organization into some very difficult and contentious conversation. Some of which have labeled us as deceitful due to a lack of clearly defined procedure on the part of the city.”
“While we regret that this process has denied our ability to reconvene with the neighbors as we have promised them, we do respect their opinion and position on all things related to their neighborhood and their homes,” said Cotter.
"With all due respect if the council feels the opposition outweighs its support, then that decision lays with the council and not Catholic Charities."
She said the city should learn from the missteps in this process and improve upon it.
“I just want to say, it is not us versus them; it is us working together to help solve a problem in the community.”
Find a new location
After receiving information from local residents who said they signed the recent petition, the Evening Sun attempted to reach out to the individual organizing it.
The organizer did not want press coverage when contacted Thursday. She said she would speak at an upcoming public meeting and asked for her name not to be published. She said she spoke to most of the petitioners and insisted the issue was about the location of an unapproved zoning project being placed in a residential neighborhood.
She took issue with a story published by the Evening Sun last week, that read: “Neighborhood Residents Circulate Petition To Protest Overnight Warming Centers For The Homeless.” She said the headline and opening statement were misleading and misinformation because it was not the larger project or helping the homeless that residents objected to, only the location it was being placed in: a location not intended for it by local zoning rules.
She said there are other options for a shelter, but in order to save money Catholic Charities pushed the project forward to use a nearby building. She said the group was not as transparent as they could have been and gave residents short time frames to offer input.
Numbers and experiences
Norwich Police Chief Rodney Marsh shared some data at the meeting about the NPD's interactions and arrests with individuals identified as homeless.
He said the average age of those encountered was 31, with low of 18 and a high of 67.
He said between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 there were 474 instances of homeless individuals being involved in a complaint or case, as either a victim, suspect or witness.
Trespassing and burglary complaints: 103.
Suspicious person complaints: 34.
Violating public order, including crimes such as harassment and disorderly conduct: 44.
Check on the person's welfare: 68.
He said the department had arrested 131 homeless for various crimes this year. About 58 of those charged were wanted on outstanding warrants.
At an October city meeting Director of Guernsey Memorial Library Connie Dalrymple shared her organization's experience over the summer with recent homelessness.
“We did experience quite a bit of an impact from homelessness. This summer we had lots of folks bringing their possessions on the property, hanging out in park in the back of the building, spending time inside the building, using the restrooms, and a lot of people in the community were upset about this,” said Dalrymple.
“There was a lot of trash being left around, a lot of clothes being left around. They were leaving needles in the bathroom or in the park in some cases. We did experience some problems with folks trying to break into the library. And we saw more overdoses than we had seen in the past.”
She said the library tried to reduce the impact on staff and regular visitors by improving communication with police during potentially dangerous situations.
“Of course the ambulance service came by when we had an overdose problem,” she said. “We've doubled our clean-up efforts in the park to make sure people aren't impacted by needles back there, which is scary."
The library was also forced to end 24/7 wifi access for the community.
“We often find people parked in their cars outside the library doing internet stuff at night. We were also finding that was brining in homeless folks too, so we stopped the 24/7 wifi access," said Dalrymple.
The wifi now goes off when the library closes. The hours the park behind the library is open to the public has also been limited in response.
“We've now made the park a dawn to dusk park, so if there are people on the property at night trying to camp out under the bushes and et cetera, we can have the police come through and roust them and hopefully get them into some sort of housing for the night,” she said.
After a series of safety incidents the library has begun locking all bathrooms. Visitors will have to ask a clerk for a key.
“So people will no longer be doing questionable transactions in the bathrooms, hanging out in there anymore,” she said. “Unfortunately when I came here that was cited as one of the best things I did for the library, was unlock the bathrooms. Well, we're going to have to reverse that now because of problems we've been having.”
She said the library's problems in the last month had drastically gone down and when the community gets another influx in spring, they are better prepared.