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Dan Hust | Democrat

The Sullivan County Federation for the Homeless operates its offices and a soup kitchen out of the former Foothills Community Center at 9 Monticello Street in Monticello. The currently-unused second floor is being planned to be converted into a 35-bed homeless shelter, should state funding be granted.

Proposed homeless shelter gets nod from planning board

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — April 16, 2010 — A proposed homeless shelter in Monticello has gotten the needed approval from the village planning board, though some village residents and officials wish it hadn’t.
The Sullivan County Federation for the Homeless is seeking $2.5 million in state grants to open a 35-bed shelter for homeless women and their children.
In March, Monticello’s planning board approved renovating the Federation’s headquarters on Monticello Street. The vote was 3-1, with Chairman Dennis Diuguid dissenting and member Andrew Arias recusing himself (he works for the Federation’s accountant, Cooper, Niemann and Company).
Honora Wohl was one of the three who voted to approve the special use permit for the Federation, though she was criticized for doing so since her husband Sam is on the Federation’s board.
But Wohl and opponent Maria Flynn – both close neighbors of the Federation’s headquarters and soup kitchen at 9 Monticello St. – represent the two camps of thought on the shelter.
“I felt my vote was appropriate because I believe in the project,” said Wohl, noting that no one objected at the meeting to her action, even though she had already announced her husband’s place on the board. “I believe it’s a good thing. I strongly believe it will benefit the people and the neighbors.”
“This is a great idea,” remarked Flynn. “This is the wrong location.”
Already unhappy with the soup kitchen’s presence (which has been there eight of the 16 years Flynn and her family have lived nearby), she is worried that the shelter will put neighbors and the people it serves at risk.
“Who’s going to keep these kids safe?” she asked. “... Initially, there wasn’t even a playground on this plan.”
The Federation added a small play area, and at the planning board’s request, included five security cameras in the proposal. Those cameras will be monitored by on-site security personnel 24/7, said the Federation’s director, Steve White.
But Flynn also has concerns about the sizes of the bedrooms, ranging from 155-193 square feet, and the fact that they’ll be on the second floor above the still-operating soup kitchen.
“Will these children be exposed to transients?” the Monticello teaching assistant wondered. “And let’s face it: these women aren’t going to want to stick around a 10,000-square-foot building. Where are they going to be? There are no sidewalks on my road.”
She recently garnered 80 names of neighbors on a petition asking that the shelter be relocated, but now that the planning board has signed off, the Federation needs only focus on getting cooperation from the state and county.
White, who’s been working on the proposal for the past year, said Flynn and company have nothing to fear.
“This is not just housing a person,” he explained. “It’s a very structured environment.”
The women referred to the shelter by the county and its agencies will be pre-screened, he said, with criminals, drug abusers, and those with serious mental health issues sent elsewhere.
The model will be based on a successful version in Orange County, and White is working closely with John Harper, its executive director.
Each resident will have to sign a contract requiring them to attend all the shelter’s programs, which are designed to teach them life skills and transition them out of homelessness, said White. GED and parenting classes, for example, will be mandatory. There will also be intensive case management.
While the goal is to give these women and their kids a safe haven, their stays will be limited to 90 days at most, he added.
The handicapped-accessible sleeping area – which will also feature shared bathrooms, a study, a rec room (one for adults and one for kids) and a daycare center – won’t have a kitchen, so the downstairs soup kitchen will serve as the meal provider. Eating times will be different from the regular public’s, so that the two populations aren’t mixing, White said.
Planning Board Chair Diuguid’s “no” vote stemmed from concerns over safety and the extra (and expensive) police protection that may be necessary, but White argued that incidents involving the soup kitchen – which is open to all, with no screening process – have rarely required calling the police.
“We’re just trying to help these people get on their feet,” he pointed out. “... We want to protect them and give them skills. To say we’re introducing a bad element – I just don’t see it. We’re not introducing more crime to the area.”
Flynn admitted her concerns are based in part on simply not wanting this in her neighborhood.
“Maybe it is a little bit of NIMBYism [Not In My Back Yard],” she said.
But her opposition is shared by the village’s mayor, Gordon Jenkins.
“I don’t like the idea,” he remarked, “because it’s in a residential community.”
He also doesn’t feel it’s in line with the village’s goals.
“We need jobs here,” Jenkins said, “not warehousing people.”
But that’s already the case with most of the village’s hotels, which are filled with people who need temporary housing – paid for by Sullivan County.
“We spend $750,000 on emergency housing and hotels,” noted County Manager David Fanslau.
And that, he added, is just a quarter of the actual cost, which is made up by state and federal subsidies.
Both he and the county’s Health and Family Services commissioner, Chris Cunningham, see promise in the Federation’s proposal, both to cut costs and improve services.
“I think they do a tremendous job for what they do,” Fanslau said of the existing soup kitchen.
“We would be willing to send them clients,” affirmed Cunningham, who has been in discussions with White about it. “... We’ve made it clear it is our intent to use this facility.”
That clarity is required by New York State officials, who will be considering whether to give the Federation $2.5 million in startup funding. Once up and running, however, the county’s payments to house the women would cover the shelter’s expenses, indicated White.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther is one of many who support the idea.
“It saves money. It’s a better quality of life,” she said, basing her remarks on the successes Orange County has seen in its shelter program. “... I think it’s a win-win situation.”
“There will be more control, and it will be a better place for children,” agreed Monticello Village Trustee Carmen Rue.
County Legislator Alan Sorensen, who represents that area, agrees the shelter could provide a more stable environment than the hotels currently do.
“I think there’s a need for the facility,” he remarked. “But I also think the location presents some challenges related to the surrounding residential areas.”
He urged the Federation to maintain a healthy dialogue with neighbors to mitigate concerns before and after the shelter opens.
“The vagueness and uncertainties are making the community nervous,” agreed Flynn.
White assured that the Federation remains keenly aware of the local issues – and of all the village, county, state and federal requirements the shelter must meet.
“This isn’t being done haphazardly,” he promised.
He added the Federation has support from the owner of the property on which it sits – Harry Rhulen – but they hope soon to possess title to it themselves, opening up more opportunities.
White also envisioned up to two dozen jobs being created for area residents (case management, food service, operations and maintenance), and he pointed out that the shelter will work with its occupants to transition them into more permanent housing – not leave them back on the street after a three-month stay.
The needed state funding, however, is not yet a sure thing, though White remains optimistic.
“There’s a huge shortage [of this type of housing] out there,” he observed. “And so much money is spent in these hotels by the county.
“This could be a cost savings to taxpayers, not an increase,” he added. “The county will spend less per person ... with the chance of getting them off assistance.
“Financially and on a compassionate level, it’s the right thing to do.”

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