RICHMONDVILLE — The controversial shutdown of Schoharie County’s only warming center can’t be immediately reversed, town Code Enforcement Officer Jay Belfiore maintained.
The Warnerville Methodist Church site — an overnight emergency shelter for homeless people — would need an OK from the town Zoning Board of Appeals in order to have a shot at reopening, Belfiore said. He’s been the subject of public scrutiny since forcing the closure by virtue of regulatory noncompliance in mid-November.
Catholic Charities was subcontracted by the Schoharie County Department of Social Services to handle the operation, which ran from Nov. 1 to 16. About five people a night would stay at the center.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am on their side,” Belfiore told The Daily Gazette. “It’s very emotional. They’re emotional about it, but I have to take the emotion out of it.”
Fran Sossei, administrative council chairwoman of the Warnerville Methodist Church, believes that Belfiore is dodging accountability.
“I’m sorry, [it’s] bull crap,” Sossei said. “He could make an emergency ruling on the zoning and give us the opportunity to open until we get this cleared up so that people who are sleeping out on the streets can come inside.”
Scheduled on an as-needed basis, ZBA meetings are currently under the chairmanship of Steve Swenson, who didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Should the center obtain a ZBA variance, it would next need Planning Board approval.
Sossei believes the 11-bed operation was constitutionally protected by the First Amendment as a mission of the ministry. If the shelter required municipal review beforehand, Sossei said, the town should’ve addressed it before opening doors.
Belfiore deemed overnight guest occupancy in such a capacity barred under Richmondville’s hamlet regulations and state code.
“In there, they were in violation of state code to start with,” Belfiore said. “And that forced me to look at the whole picture.”
Catholic Charities told the ministry that the site was up to code, according to Sossei.
Belfiore hasn’t formally inspected the site. He said he’s now disallowed from doing so under state law until the center receives ZBA and Planning Board clearance. He said he’s open to helping the ministry when he can.
The hamlet zoning restriction was chided by Fran’s husband, Bill Sossei, as “vague” at a Dec. 8 Town Board meeting. He was among a crowd of warming center advocates firing back at Belfiore’s decision.
Cobleskill resident Hillary Taylor during public comment said that the decision resulted in her husband losing his job, which in turn, could drive her family into homelessness.
DSS Commissioner Donna Becker said that the warming center was more effective in contrast with the current system, which requires the county to rent out boarding accommodations elsewhere. As of Friday, the county was paying for 11 families transported to lodging rooms in Amsterdam.
Under an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016, all counties have to provide lodging accommodations for homeless people under CODE Blue.
“While the warming station was open, we had five or six people say ‘no thank you, I don’t want to stay in a warming station,’ because they thought they were going to get a hotel,” Becker said. “And they decided that they really weren’t homeless, and found somebody’s couch to sleep on, so a warming station handles the people who truly, truly need it.”
In prepared remarks, Richmondville Town Supervisor Jeff Halsun said that any concerns on the Warnerville Methodist Church issue should be directed to Belfiore, the Planning Board and ZBA.
The only resident directly advocating for Belfiore was state Highway 7 resident Dotty Russell under the belief that the warming center was lawfully shut down as a safety precaution.
“[Belfiore is] trying to protect those people that are going to be staying here, so you want to open it back up before everything is taken care of,” Russell said. “If God forbid there’s a fire and they can’t get out the door, they are gonna die inside.”
The Thursday meeting ran in stark contrast with a public forum hosted by Catholic Charities earlier in the fall, in which a number of residents voiced concerns about having homeless people stay in Warnerville. The center was considered as a potential site for a station late last summer.
Some station supporters believe anti-homeless community sentiment influenced Belfiore to close the site, a claim the code enforcement officer has denied.
“Even if the community was upset about it, if this was done legally, I’d be obliged to get it through,” Belfiore said.
The Sooseis alleged that Belfiore harassed workers and guests at the warming center one night in November, leading one guest to run onto state Highway 7. Belfiore asserted that he was sent by the Planning Board to address code violations and became “upset” that the church was open beyond his orders to close after the weekend.
Belfiore sent a letter to DSS on Nov. 16, warning the department of warming center code violations.
DSS worked with Catholic Charities to find a warming shelter site for more than a year. They’ve unsuccessfully attempted to find a spot in the village of Cobleskill, the county’s population center.
Christy Houck, director for Catholic Charities of Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie Counties, admires the community’s support of the warming station while its future hangs in the balance.
“I really don’t know exactly what our next steps are going to be,” said Houck. “I think we all have to kind of get together and decide where we go from here, but I think that we are going to pursue” efforts to get the facility back up and running.
Schoharie Land Trust board member and attorney Fred Mauhs recently volunteered to handle the case for the Methodist ministry. Catholic Charities already has an attorney from the Albany Diocese looking at the situation.
Warming center advocates have considered talks with Belfiore, Mauhs and county Attorney Michael West.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3095 or at [email protected]
Correction 12/15/22: The center closed Nov. 16. An earlier version of this article had the date incorrect
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