GLOVERSVILLE – The Common Council is set Tuesday to consider a change to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow for a temporary Code Blue homeless shelter to be established at a location somewhere other than the former YWCA building.
Mayor Vince DeSantis said he believes the city needs a temporary Code Blue shelter, but not where the nonprofit organization Center for Hope wants to operate it. The city is expected to set a public hearing to discuss the proposal.
“This ordinance change would list a Code Blue shelter as a permitted use in the commercial zone with a special use permit, however, it does not permit it in the form-based overlay,” DeSantis said. “The form-based overlay covers the center of the business district. The former YWCA is right in the middle of town, inside the form-based overlay.”
DeSantis said City Attorney Anthony “Tony” Casale presented the council with a draft of the ordinance change Friday.
“I’m hoping the Center of Hope will be on board with establishing the Code Blue shelter in another area, and there are various other locations, other buildings that could be used for this,” DeSantis said.
The Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit at 153 S. Main St. has a former rectory building adjacent to it that he believes could be a functional location for a Code Blue temporary shelter, DeSantis said.
“Both myself and the council feel pretty strongly that we need this service, and it’s the right thing to do, but we also feel that the very center of downtown, the center of the commercial district, is probably the wrong place to have it,” he said.
Tuesday’s Common Council meeting will take place via the Zoom video conferencing program and streamed live to the city’s Facebook page.
Rev. Rich Wilkinson said if the meeting were held in-person he would attend and speak about the proposed ordinance change.
“Because it’s on Zoom I don’t know how I could speak at it, but I will watch it,” he said.
Wilkinson is the leader of the Gloversville Free Methodist Church, which owns the YWCA. He disputes the arguments of people who say that a homeless shelter would be a detriment to the city’s downtown development.
“My question to people who say that is, ‘Do you go to Proctors? Do you go to Saratoga and walk on Broadway?’ because there’s a shelter a block off of Broadway in Saratoga, and the shelter in Schenectady is only a couple of blocks away from Proctors,” he said.
From February to mid-April, Wilkinson operated the Center for Hope, Fulton County’s first temporary homeless shelter at the former YWCA. He said the shelter was open for 34 “Code Blue” nights when the temperature went below 32 degrees, but the shelter was using a temporary certificate of occupancy granted by the Common Council.
The temporary certificate of occupancy allowed for only up to 10 people to use the Code Blue shelter, and Center of Hope records indicate the shelter accommodated 27 total people, no more than eight on any night of operation, with the longest stay by any individual at the shelter being 26 nights, and the second longest 13 nights.
Since then the Center for Hope has been stymied in its efforts to get a permanent certificate of occupancy due to city inspector David Fox who ruled the city code does not allow for a homeless shelter in the “form-based overlay” area of downtown.
Gloversville designated the special section of downtown after hiring the consulting firm LaBella Associates, from Rochester, in 2017 to help craft a downtown development strategy for the city. The form-based overlay was suggested by LaBella and ultimately adopted by the Common Council. The form-based overlay area has important differences from the rest of the city’s commercial zone, including a ban on adult entertainment businesses, a ban on “rooming houses” and other form-based rules that pertain to aesthetic elements of buildings and signage.
Fox has argued homeless shelters are prohibited by the city code and the form-based overlay, although the code does not include any definition of a homeless shelter.
Fox’s interpretation of the city code has been bolstered by Matt Capano, owner of the Gloversville True Value Hardware store located next door to the former YWCA, and “New York Lunch,” a restaurant on Bleecker Street. Capano has argued the shelter has caused his business problems including one man who urinated on the lamppost outside his building on the shelter’s first night of operation, among other complaints.
The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals agreed with Fox and Capano and voted 4-0 on Dec. 9 to reject the Center for Hope’s application for the permanent certificate of occupancy.
Wilkinson disputes the city’s interpretation of the code and he said the proposed zoning ordinance won’t help his organization’s effort to help the homeless.
“There are already similar shelters in the overlay district, so I don’t know why ours is different,” he said. “There’s the [residential drug addiction program the] Fulton Friendship House and the Victorian Manor, both in that district, so it seems a little discriminatory to allow both of those and not ours.”
Wilkinson said the Center for Hope is set up now to operate as a shelter for both men and women with proper accessibility for the disabled and up-to-code bathrooms with about 40 beds available.
“We already have the building set up, and they’re trying to push it back on us saying, ‘If you want to help people, do it somewhere else,'” he said. “If they want to move it somewhere else, I feel like the city is going to have to be the ones who fund that.”
Wilkinson said several members of the Center for Hope Board of Directors are Catholics and when the topic of creating a Code Blue shelter was first discussed, the location of the former rectory building at the Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit was discussed and rejected.
“That building needs a lot of work. It’s not handicap accessible,” he said. “It doesn’t have the bathroom space. From what I understand it doesn’t have a kitchen. There’s mold in the basement. This idea was brought to the mayor by somebody who isn’t affiliated with the shelter.”
The Center for Hope had previously announced its plan to apply for a “use variance” from the ZBA at it’s Jan. 6 meeting with the help of attorney Ben McGuire.
Wilkinson said the Center for Hope is considering dropping the plan to apply for a use variance and might instead file a lawsuit challenging the city and the ZBA’s interpretation of the city code. He said to get a use variance the Center for Hope would need to show some economic hardship for the organization itself from the ZBA’s ruling, which would be difficult because the group is a nonprofit. He said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 Code Blue executive order, which states it supersedes “all local laws, as well as any local directives, guidance, or policies to the contrary,” might be stronger ground for a legal challenge.
Meanwhile the Center for Hope has continued to provide some services to the homeless and the needy. On Saturday the group gave out blankets, socks and food at the former YWCA. Wilkinson said there were between 30 and 40 people who attended.
“It was all just homeless people who came, but it was freezing cold and we had people who came without a coat on, so we were able to get coats on them and blankets, so it went well,” he said.
Councilman-at-Large William Rowback Jr. said he agrees the city needs a Code Blue temporary shelter, but it would have been better if the Center for Hope had started its efforts to establish a permanent certificate of occupancy earlier in the year, rather than waiting until into November and December when the temperature is dropping and the need is most dire.
“Instead of bringing this to us in November, when Code Blue season is starting, and it turns out to be that it looks like it’s the city’s fault that it’s not being passed, or that we’re putting a stop light to it, which we’re not,” he said. “Things could have possibly worked out differently, if this had been worked on over the summer.”
Rowback acknowledged the issues with the Catholic rectory building.
“I know we got a notice saying the rectory needs a roof, and there’s not enough there for men and women and the bathrooms need some updating, and they have to get the approval from the Albany Diocese to even do something like that,” he said. “So, I don’t know where that’s going to go.”
The Common Council meeting is scheduled to begin Tuesday at 6 p.m.