GLOVERSVILLE — As frigid weather descends on the region, a high stakes public hearing has been set for today at 7 p.m. over an occupancy application for a downtown Code Blue homeless shelter that has not been allowed to reopen this season at the former YWCA on Bleecker Street.
The Gloversville Free Methodist Church operated the Center of Hope shelter from February to mid-April using a temporary certificate of occupancy. A Code Blue shelter opens when temperatures dip below 32 degrees art night.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 Code Blue executive order mandates that local governments provide for the operation of temporary emergency shelters for homeless people on nights when the temperature drops below freezing. The temperature has been below 32 degrees every night in Gloversville since Dec. 2, but the Center of Hope has been shut down since its temporary occupancy certificate expired earlier this year.
The Center of Hope wants a permanent certificate of occupancy, but city Building Inspector David Fox has said a Code Blue homeless shelter is not permitted in that section of downtown.
The Gloversville Zoning Board of Appeals, chaired by Jeffrey Ashe, is tasked with making the decision of whether to allow the shelter to have a permanent certificate of occupancy. The ZBA’s meeting tonight in City Hall will allow members of the public to voice views on both sides of the issue. The ZBA is expected to rule on the application after the hearing.
Rev Rich Wilkinson ran the temporary shelter, which he said housed a total of 27 people over 34 Code Blue nights between February and mid-April, with no more than eight total people in a given night. The longest stay at the shelter was 26 nights, and the second longest was 13 nights.
“We weren’t just a place to warehouse people, out of that we had four individuals who were assisted with permanent housing,” he said. “We had another four who were assisted with acquiring medical insurance.”
Matt Capano, owner of the Gloversville True Value Hardware store located next door to the former YWCA, hopes the ZBA rejects the shelter’s appeal. Capano has complained about the shelter from its first night in operation when a homeless man urinated on the lamp post outside of his business. He said he intends to give a speech at Wednesday’s public hearing. He said Wilkinson and Center Hope Chairman Mike Shrader have been “lying” about the number of incidents.
“There’s been a lot more than one problem, and they keep lying about just one problem,” he said. “There’s been tens of problems.”
Wilkinson offered a different take on the man who urinated outside Capano’s business.
“He presented with very obvious mental health issues,” Wilkinson said. “He was talking to himself. You couldn’t really carry a good conversation with him. We were able to bring him into our food pantry when the food pantry was open, just to keep him off the streets. He was taken to the police station for a mental health evaluation, but then our staff were able to get him to a mental health facility where he was put on medication. And when he came back to us, after that, he was a different person.”
Cuomo’s Code Blue executive order includes language that says the mandate must “supersede all local laws, as well as any local directives, guidance, or policies to the contrary.”
Despite the executive order, no Code Blue shelter had been established in Fulton County until the Center of Hope opened in February using the temporary certificate of occupancy from the city.
Shrader said Fulton County is able to technically fulfill the requirements of the Code Blue mandate as long as the Fulton County Department of Social Services can provide shelter for individuals who qualify for assistance during times when the temperature falls below 32 degrees.
Anne Solar, commissioner of the Fulton County Department of Social Services, said she believes there have been about one or two people per year who have been placed in housing, which could include stays at a hotel, by her department under the Code Blue mandate since 2016, but the low number is due to most people qualifying for housing assistance under other programs. She said since Nov. 16 Fulton County DSS has had 24 nights worth of housing placements, only one of which qualified as a Code Blue case. She said Tuesday she did not have the number of people who had been placed, and said some of the people could have received assistance for multiple nights.
Solar said that from January to October of 2020 her department has placed 67 single individuals and 19 families into housing accommodations, which can be paid for through a variety of programs. She said in 2019 her department placed 99 single individuals into housing and 29 families. In 2018 Fulton County DSS placed 91 singles and 26 families.
Shrader said he believes a shelter like Center for Hope is a better suited for helping people who may be reluctant to apply for benefits through DSS, possibly because they are suffering from mental health issues that would make attempting to wade through complex paperwork difficult.
Solar said she partially rejects that hypothesis.
“Because so many people who fit that criteria do come to our offices for assistance, I do think many do seek our services,” she said. “But, others in the community have knowledge of instances where people will not come to us, so I have to give that some credence.”
Shrader said the Center for Hope was able to raise $56,000 from local donations in only a few days to pay for the operation in February. He said the funding enabled the group to build the capacity to house up to 40 people at the former YWCA, although the temporary occupancy certificate only allowed up to 10.
Wilkinson and the Center of Hope Board of Directors dispute Building Inspector Fox’s view. He said the former YWCA originally included a shelter, and there’s nothing in Gloversville’s city code that expressly prohibits a homeless shelter.
“Really, what’s going on is [the city] is saying the shelter doesn’t fit with the zoning code, and we believe that it does,” he said. “They’re saying it’s a prohibited use, and we don’t believe it is a prohibited use.”
The Center of Hope presented its application to the Zoning Board of Appeals on Dec. 2. The ZBA then scheduled an expedited public hearing for tonight, at which time it is expected the board will rule on whether to grant the Center of Hope its appeal for a permanent certificate of occupancy.
Wilkinson said it’s his understanding that normally the Center of Hope’s appeal would have needed to wait until January to be ruled on by the ZBA, so he’s glad the board has agreed to move faster because there are people living on the streets of Gloversville despite the increasingly cold nights.
Jerry Ryan, a retired college professor and member of the Center of Hope Board of Directors, said he wishes Mayor Vince DeSantis would grant the center another temporary occupancy certificate for the winter to help the homeless while the occupancy issue is resolved.
“I just think it should be a possibility given all of this delay, delay, delay strategy by City Hall,” Ryan said.
DeSantis said he does not believe it would be proper for the city to grant another temporary occupancy certificate given that the matter is now before the city Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals.
DeSantis, who formerly served as Gloversville’s city judge, said it would be wrong for he and the Common Council to intervene in the process at this stage.
“I don’t want to exceed my authority by giving my opinions on these things or for the council to do that,” he said.
Wilkinson said that if the occupancy permit is denied, the Center of Hope is considering filing a lawsuit against the city, which would argue the city’s Planning and Zoning boards are unfairly interpreting the law.
“Unfortunately, this is a very long process and there are people sleeping outside in the cold,” he said.
And there could be significantly more homeless people in Fulton County before the end of the winter if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus moratorium on evictions expires at the end of the year.
Since Cuomo’s eviction moratorium, and a similar federal moratorium on eviction instituted by President Donald Trump, a growing number of renters in the Fulton County area and elsewhere around the country have stopped paying rents, building up a potential housing crisis whenever eviction rights are restored to landlords.