Zoning Officials Stop Church From Opening 40-Bed Shelter in Sub-Zero Temperatures

Temperatures in Gloversville, New York are expected to drop to -4 degrees tonight. This is bad news for the roughly 80 homeless people who live in the upstate community, who have few options for escaping the dangerously cold weather.

About half of those people could be accommodated on the second floor of a building owned by the city’s Free Methodist Church, where 40 empty beds stand ready to welcome people out of the cold.

To prevent that from happening, Gloversville zoning officials say the commercial development of the church’s property and its downtown location prohibit it from hosting a cold-weather shelter. These empty beds have to stay that way.

“The situation up here is dire and the city just refuses to let us open,” said Richard Wilkinson, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Gloversville. “It’s heartbreaking to know that there are people out there.”

Wilkinson’s efforts to open a cold-weather shelter date back to late 2019. At the time, Fulton County, where Gloversville is located, had no homeless shelters. Opening one would help it meet its obligation under a 2016 Code Blue executive order issued by the then government. Andrew Cuomo of having a plan to shelter the homeless when temperatures drop below freezing.

The downtown building of the Free Methodist Church on Bleecker Street seemed like the perfect place, says Wilkinson. The ground floor of the former YWCA facility was already used as a pantry. The second floor had more than enough space to accommodate dormitories. The building also had sanitary facilities and a large kitchen, so the people living there could also get a hot shower and a warm meal.

Better still, the shelter would be downtown, where most of the homeless were already gathered.

“All the homeless are down here in the center of town,” says Wilkinson ground. “There’s a lot of service. In Gloversville, they can get a meal five to six days a week. There are a lot of benefits to having it down here.”

As of November 2019, Wilkinson and other churches and community organizations began working to make their idea a reality. The community and city administration were initially quite receptive to the efforts.

It took them just a few days to raise the $60,000 they needed to get their Center for Hope shelter up and running. Local businesses generously donated linens and pillows to the effort. The mayor and the then chief of police had lively discussions about the new accommodation. An initial city building inspection revealed only minor problems that were easily fixed, Wilkinson says.

However, this positive momentum was derailed in February 2020 when the city of Wilkinson issued a notice of an issue on the same day that the shelter’s final building inspection was scheduled.

He was told that the commercial zoning and location of his property in a “downtown urban core form-based overlay district” meant a Code Blue Shelter might not be allowed and he would have to go to the city’s planning board for permission to open to obtain .

Community outcry led to the city granting the church temporary permission to operate a Code Blue shelter earlier this year. But to legalize it long-term, the Free Methodist Church had to go through a months-long planning process and produce a site plan and architectural drawings.

At a planning committee meeting in September 2020, Wilkinson and his attorney made a personal plea for his shelter. They said the shelter’s temporary options have been a success this year. They had managed to fill 27 bunks that winter and get a number of people who walked through their doors into mental health or drug addiction treatment.

The biggest problem that arose was when one of the shelter’s residents urinated in front of a neighboring shop.

They noted that because the city’s zoning code is not silent on whether code blue shelters are a permitted use in the commercial zone of the property while similar things like residences and hotels are permitted, the shelter should be opened.

None of this convinced the planning committee. In October, it sent Wilkinson a letter stating that its property’s zoning did not allow it to operate as a Code Blue shelter.

In response, Wilkinson took his case to the city’s Board of Appeals for zoning, where he argued that the planning board misinterpreted the zoning code and that his church’s shelter should be opened.

That also proved unsuccessful. In a letter dated January 22, 2021, the Zoning Appeals Commission upheld previous City decisions that a Code Blue dwelling in commercial areas was not a permissible use and, as a result, the Bleecker Street dwelling would have to either receive a zoning derogation or close .

These administrative denials of Wilkinson’s Code Blue Shelter were mirrored by the Gloversville City Council.

On New Year’s Day 2021, the council passed an amendment to the city’s zoning code that allowed code blue shelters in commercial areas, but also specifically banned them in the city’s downtown “form-based overlay zone” where Shelter Bleecker Street is located.

Wilkinson says the city allocated some funding in 2021 to open compromise accommodation further from downtown, but that has proven unfeasible. The new location, he said, only has eight beds and one bathroom. The sinks broke frequently and winter winds blew in a window.

With no other options, the Free Methodist Church sued the Gloversville Building Department in February 2021. The lawsuit is still pending.

This afternoon, local ABC affiliate WTEN reported that city officials signed papers this morning to lease a closed VFW concourse near downtown the city that will serve as a temporary 20-bed Code Blue shelter.

“We knew the weather was cold out there. We wanted to offer this service to the community, particularly to people who are in dire need of housing,” Mayor Vincent DeSantis told WTEN this afternoon.

In a press release, the Center of Hope’s advisory board said it was “grateful” to city leaders “for not only recognizing the homeless population, but also a
temporary solution.”

Wilkinson tells ground that he was not involved in the city’s efforts and therefore does not know what type of facilities or services will be offered at the new shelter. But he says he’s glad the city is getting people out of the cold.

Still, he says it hasn’t changed his plans to open an animal shelter on the Bleecker Street property and that his church’s lawsuit is continuing.

Regarding this shelter, Wilkinson said ground yesterday that the city did everything in its power to block his church’s charitable efforts and people are suffering as a result.

“It boils down to it being freezing. All it is is a line in the city ordinance that keeps people from sleeping in the heat,” says Wilkinson. “I find it ridiculous that anyone would allow people to sleep in the cold when there’s somewhere they can come in and warm up.”

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