RICHMONDVILLE — The future of Schoharie County’s only warming center hangs in the balance.
The Warnerville Methodist Church operation, supported by Catholic Charities and the county Department of Social Services, was recently shut down by the town of Richmondville for zoning violations after less than three weeks of providing overnight emergency shelter for homeless denizens.
“If we can’t open in the Warnerville church, we likely won’t be able to open this year because it took us, like I said, eight months or more to even have someone come forward and say, ‘hey, let’s think about this,’” said Christy Houck, executive director for Catholic Charities of Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie Counties.
From Nov. 1 through 16, guests, pre-screened by Catholic Charities, were bussed to the church via Schoharie County Transport around 5:30 p.m. and picked up the next day at 7:30 a.m. About five guests stayed at a time, monitored by two respective shifts of evening staff.
Richmondville Code Enforcement Officer Jay Belfiore and Town Supervisor Jeff Haslun were concerned about guests walking alongside the dimly lit state Highway 7, according to a report from the Cobleskill Times-Journal.
DSS on Nov. 16 received a notification from the town that the church had violated zoning restrictions within Richmondville’s hamlet of Warnerville.
Fran Sossei, administrative council chair of the Warnerville Methodist Church alleged that the shutdown was an effort to satisfy community members worried about attracting unruly characters.
“These are not violent people,” said Sossei. “These are people who are down on their luck and need a place to stay.”
Sossei said that there were only two instances of guests walking away from the site, one of which occurred after Belfiore allegedly threatened to halt the operation during a visit.
Halsun told the Board of Supervisors earlier this month that the codes officer previously told the church that they couldn’t operate in such capacity beyond the weekend.
During an informational meeting about the warming station hosted by Catholic Charities earlier in the fall, community members expressed concern about opening the warming shelter nearby, Houck said.
The meeting was “poorly advertised” as described in a monthly meeting report from the clerk’s office earlier in November. The report mentioned that Warnerville resident Dawn Haskin expressed concern over the station’s lack of planning board review.
“They had plenty of opportunities before we opened to have come in and inspected and had a discussion with us,” Houck said. “They could have done that, but they didn’t. We never got contacted by anyone.”
Catholic Charities and DSS, in partnership, have sought out a warming center hub for more than a year. Following a 2016 state executive order requiring all counties to provide shelter for homeless denizens, in frigid temperatures, Schoharie County has worked with two motels in the county and upwards of four motels outside beyond administrative borders.
The group started discussing the current site, a former Sunday school and stage area space in the Warnerville Methodist Church, by late summer.
“We advised the church to do what they needed to do in terms of codes and zoning and I’m not exactly sure what the sequence for them was necessarily,” said county DSS Deputy Commissioner Stephen Munford.
Town board members are anticipated to discuss the church controversy Thursday.
Haslun declined to comment on the situation to the Daily Gazette. He said “people will be able to say what they want during public comment” and he will make a statement on the situation at the meeting.
Belfiore also declined to comment.
“I’m not talking about it to the papers,” said Belfiore. “If you want to come to the town’s board meeting, I’m more than happy to talk about it.”
Catholic Charities is looking at potential legal avenues to confront the situation and would pursue planning board approval only if necessary. The Warnerville Methodist Church has considered retaining an attorney.
Having the site back up and running, Sossei maintained, is critical.
“It’s what Jesus would want us to do,” she said.
Schoharie County Board of Supervisors Chair Bill Federice hopes that Richmondville community stakeholders and Catholic Charities will find an olive branch.
“I think — this is Bill Federice speaking but I know a lot of my friends on the board share this same thought — we wish there had been more discussion ahead,” said Federice. “But now that that’s past, we hope there’ll be enough discussion so both sides understand where they’re coming from on this particular issue and maybe come to an accommodation.”
Schoharie County has considered potentially buying an old detention center to serve as a warming center at some point within the next four years.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil
Correction 12/15/22: The center closed Nov. 16. An earlier version of this article had the date incorrect