AMSTERDAM — Nearby organizations had their concerns about a homeless shelter planned for Guy Park Avenue addressed during a closed door meeting organized by Amsterdam Mayor Michael Cinquanti held earlier this week .
“I felt by doing it this way, it would create an open dialogue, an open discussion with them,” Cinquanti said Friday.
The Montgomery County Office for the Aging, Horace J. Inman Senior Center, Sarah Jane Sanford Home for Women, Amsterdam Housing Authority and a neighborhood physician had requested more details about the shelter from the mayor’s office.
Plans by Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless to convert an existing building at 76 Guy Park Ave. into an 18-bed homeless shelter with six studio apartments providing permanent housing and support services were already approved by the Planning Commission on June 22.
Required legal notices were published ahead of the public hearing held on the special use permit application at the June meeting. Certified letters were also mailed to property owners within 200-feet of the site. A story on the proposal was also published in the June 20 edition of The Recorder.
However, Jean So, second vice president of the Sanford Home Board of Trustees, said the notification came mere days before the public hearing, limiting the nonprofit’s ability to gather information or prepare a response.
“We were told about this sort of in the ninth hour. We tried to attend meetings that were hastily scheduled by the city,” So said. “We didn’t have time to get board members together. We really feel we were blindsided.”
While IPH apparently organized a neighborhood forum in the parking lot of the Guy Park Avenue building over the summer, it’s unclear whether the meeting was publicized or who attended.
“We never got any invitation to a meeting,” said Mary Jo Wells, executive director at the Inman Center.
The lack of information fueled their concerns over safety in the neighborhood largely populated by seniors and other vulnerable individuals. The Sanford Home, which offers assisted living for women, is directly across the street from the planned shelter. The Inman Center is a few hundred feet away.
“We’re concerned about the safety of everything, particularly our members,” Wells said. “Our members are mostly elderly and a lot of them walk.”
Rather than meeting with concerned officials individually, Cinquanti said representatives from each agency were invited to have their questions addressed during a private meeting in the annex at City Hall on Thursday.
Other participants in the meeting included officials from IPH, Montgomery County Department of Social Services Interim Commissioner Thomas Lippie, Lt. Joseph Spencer of the Amsterdam Police Department and Cinquanti.
City Hall was inundated with calls from residents who apparently heard about the meeting and were interested in learning more, which prompted Cinquanti to issue a statement on social media that the meeting was not open to the public.
The Recorder’s request to attend the meeting was referred to and denied by Corporation Counsel Anthony Casale. He noted the session was not subject to state Open Meeting Law.
Citing the 20 person occupancy limit of the annex among the reasons for the closed door session, Cinquanti assured concerned neighbors that a summary of the meeting would be issued publicly. He was working on the release on Friday morning that was issued later in the day.
Although the mayor committed to answering any further questions about the shelter submitted to his office, Cinquanti does not plan to organize a public meeting to address locals’ concerns, pointing out that proper notices were issued before the hearing in June.
“I’m not going to ask IPH to keep coming back and explaining for a third time those specifics,” Cinquanti said.
RESPONDING TO CONCERNS
Still, Cinquanti said all of the concerns expressed by organizations were addressed during the session, believing the community’s questions would similarly be covered by the summary.
“We think this is a good thing for our community,” Cinquanti said. “I’m not saying we convinced everybody, I’m just saying we presented that case.”
Many of the concerns from neighborhood agencies relate to safety, which Cinquanti said will be addressed by IPH at the secure facility that will be staffed 24/7.
“It’s going to help people who need help,” Cinquanti said. “It’s really going to be a dramatic improvement for our ability to respond to these urgent and dangerous situations where people need help.”
Prior to shelter placement, Lippie noted that individuals are screened and vetted by DSS. IPH would have further security systems and staffing measures in place to prevent issues.
“They know their business, they do an excellent job with shelters,” Lippie said. “The way it’s managed gives me great confidence there will be no issues. My concern is always to ensure the safety and security of all citizens of Montgomery County, which includes residents of that area, but also the homeless.”
The level of need within the county has continued to rise in recent years, a trend that the shelter will help address, according to Lippie, who said DSS has placed 305 homeless individuals so far this year.
IPH already successfully runs the seasonal code blue shelter in the city, Danielle’s House, Lippie noted. But that facility with just seven beds is already full this winter. Others in need of emergency housing are normally placed in local motels.
“Obviously our inventory as far as places to house the homeless is in short supply,” Lippie said.
The proximity of the accessible Guy Park Avenue building to other service organizations makes it an ideal spot, Lippie said. The property owned by St. Mary’s Healthcare that previously housed a methadone clinic is also suitable for conversion into a shelter.
Planned renovations inside and out will clean up the property that has been vacant since 2018, Cinquanti said. That in turn could help ward off existing loitering issues in the area.
“I don’t think it’s going to bring a decline to the neighborhood, I think it’s actually going to be an improvement,” Cinquanti said.
Although shelter plans have already been approved, IPH Executive Director Janine Robitaille noted the nonprofit is awaiting word on a state grant application enabling the project to move forward and declined comment for this story.
“We were very transparent and open with the group last night about their concerns and will continue to have discussions if we are funded and move forward,” Robitaille said.
Grant awards are expected to be announced this month. Robitaille previously said work on the project was tentatively planned to start in 2024 depending on the receipt of state funding.
Despite the meeting, So isn’t convinced Guy Park Avenue is the best area for the shelter and suggested another building with more spacious facilities could offer better amenities to homeless individuals.
“No one is against this shelter,” So added. “We’re not trying to be adversarial, we’re just trying to be good neighbors and we’re expecting the city and shelter to also be good neighbors.”
The Planning Commission’s prior approval of the project leaves little recourse to address remaining concerns, So acknowledged. The Sanford Home will instead take steps to ensure the continued safety of its residents and staff.
“We have a lovely home, beautiful service and we hope to continue uninterrupted,” So said.
Better communication about the project before it was “pushed through” could have helped dispel these issues, she added.
“The original presentation of the shelter was poorly handled,” So said. “Had there been more upfront informational meetings with the neighborhood, probably none of this negativity would exist.”
Although he admittedly heard little if anything about plans for the shelter before now, 4th Ward Alderman Stephen Gomula acknowledged that notices regarding the project were properly issued and voiced support for the plans.
“Homeless folks, there is a stigma against them, they’re marginalized and they need to be assisted,” Gomula said. “I think this is a good start as the city reaches out to these folks to assist them rather than resist them.”
While he took no issue with the meeting conducted privately this week, Gomula said in general the city could do more to alert residents to proposed projects to ensure they can be heard before action is taken and to avoid accusations of secrecy down the road.
“We need more transparency with this project and any project in the city,” Gomula said. “Flood the world with notices of what is going on, that way there isn’t any margin for error.”
The sudden concerns from residents over the shelter months after plans were approved have Cinquanti mulling better ways to spread the word about applications to the Planning Commission beyond publishing legal notices and mailing letters.
“When there is a controversial topic people do want more advance notice,” Cinquanti said. “We have to find a more efficient way of getting these notifications out there.”
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.