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Supporters of code blue shelter ask officials to help make it happen

Capt. Wendy Senior of the Salvation Army of Fulton County speaks in support of the Gloversville Free Methodist ChurchÕs code blue shelter at 33 Bleecker St. during TuesdayÕs Common Council meeting. A group of residents and business owners expressed support for the emergency overnight shelter during the public session. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

GLOVERSVILLE — Residents and business owners this week turned out to urge city officials to help advance the approvals needed to allow the permanent operation of an emergency code blue shelter out of the former YWCA building on Bleecker Street.

Organizers and community supporters of the code blue shelter opened last winter by the Gloversville Free Methodist Church at 33 Bleecker St. and operated by the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless addressed the Common Council on Tuesday asking the city to help the overnight emergency shelter to secure permanent approval to operate each winter.

A couple dozen community members showed up at City Hall to express their support for the shelter during the public comment session, with some supporters forced to wait in the hallway outside of the council chambers due to social distancing and capacity restrictions related to the coronavirus.

Dr. Jeremiah Ryan, a city resident and member of the advisory board that organized the shelter, also presented the Common Council with a petition signed by 321 community members in support of the shelter.

The emergency shelter in the former YWCA building on Bleecker St. owned by the Gloversville Free Methodist Church opened this year in late February through mid-April under a temporary certificate of occupancy, taking in up to 10 adults, aged 18 and older, overnight only from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. when code blue orders were issued by the Fulton County Department of Social Services.

Operation of the emergency shelter is governed by an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January 2016 directing social service districts, police agencies and state agencies to aid homeless people in getting off the streets and into appropriate shelters in inclement weather when temperatures fall at or below 32 degrees factoring in wind chill.

Organizers planned to operate the shelter each winter from mid-November through mid-April, but the shelter has not reopened this season despite code blue conditions on at least 12 nights already this season as the temporary certificate of occupancy has expired and the shelter must now secure permanent approval from the relevant city entity to resume operation.

Representatives of the shelter appeared before the Planning Board in October to initiate a site plan application under the impression that was the required step based on the proposed use of the building located in the commercial zoning district and the form-based overlay district.

The Planning Board during the Oct. 6 meeting, opened its review of the application before tabling action after requesting additional information regarding the physical site, security measures to ensure the safety of shelter clients and the community and detailed plans for the operation of the shelter, including staff training.

Shelter representatives set about gathering the information before receiving a letter from Building Inspector David Fox on Oct. 21 stating that a code blue shelter is not an allowable use in the commercial and form based overlay districts under city zoning code and that the request would therefore have to be denied.

Fox went on to state that the applicants could submit an interpretation appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals to potentially overturn the determination and advance plans. Shelter organizers have stated they plan to appear before that board during the next meeting on Dec. 2.

In the meantime, until and unless the necessary approvals are granted, the code blue shelter cannot open, leading community members to appear before the council seeking support from the city.

“The code blue shelter was designed to help the homeless here in the area in times of very stressed winter conditions … like we have tonight,” said Ryan. “Without the code blue center, the homeless, your neighbors, will not have protection when it dips below 32 degrees.”

Ryan noted that visitors to the shelter include an array of people from various walks of life including the unemployed, veterans who have been unable to reintegrate into society, victims of domestic violence, individuals with mental health problems and others who are homeless.

“We need to help them, please support our efforts,” urged Ryan.

Capt. Wendy Senior and Charity Chevallier of the Salvation Army of Fulton County attested to the presence of homeless people within the city, some who regularly receive aid from the organization’s soup pantry and others who are reluctant to come in.

“The danger these men and women are in falls in our hands,” said Senior.

Chevallier recounted a homeless man who recently asked the Salvation Army for help getting off the street and enrolling in medical insurance, noting that people often struggle to get through the system to receive the necessary supports.

Business owners Pam Bray of the Doll House and Tanyalynette Grimes of Micropolis Development Group both pointed to the need for community members and downtown business owners to set aside concerns over possible disruptions from the shelter and to instead focus on helping those in need.

“We should all do anything possible to help,” said Bray.

Grimes, who is set to open a coffee shop at 13 N. Main St. abutting Bleecker Street from the rear, acknowledged that the cafe in the future will likely attract attention from overnight shelter visitors looking for a warm place to go during the day.

“I understand that there needs to be a balanced relationship between serving cups of coffee and serving people who can’t afford cups of coffee. I do not understand why it has to be such a black and white issue,” said Grimes. “If we forget the least, the lonely, the homeless and the hungry then our commerce means nothing besides the paper that it is printed on. It is up to us as business owners and as citizens who are more fortunate than others in this city to take care of these people.”

In accordance with Common Council meeting rules, the council members did not address the shelter supporters who spoke during the public session. Following the meeting, Mayor Vincent DeSantis confirmed that possible approval of the emergency code blue shelter or of any proposed project in the city falls strictly under the determinations of the building inspector, Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals based on city code and zoning regulations.

“The city council nor the mayor has really no authority over that, it has to be done by the appropriate boards,” said DeSantis. “The Zoning Board of Appeals has the authority to either grant a variance or disagree with the building inspector.”

DeSantis acknowledged that the council in the future could review and potentially propose an amendment to city zoning regulations which, according to Fox, currently prohibit the establishment of a shelter in any zoning district in the city. But the mayor noted that any possible amendments would have to go through the various steps in the formal process.

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