Rev. Richard Wilkinson, lead pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Gloversville, says he has no plans to reopen the Center of Hope Code Blue homeless shelter at 144 E. Fulton St. this winter, but he would reopen the shelter at the former YWCA at 33 Bleecker St. in a heartbeat if allowed to do so.
“If the lawsuit came through tomorrow, we would be ready to open,” he said on Monday.
In the meantime, there have already been 20 code blue nights as of Thursday, during which the temperature has dropped below 32 degrees, and a recent survey of homeless people conducted by the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless (IPH) of Albany shows that, as of Nov. 1, there were 98 people in Fulton County who were either homeless or have “unstable housing,” which includes “couch surfers, squatters, or limited functioning house conditions.” The IPH survey shows 81 of those people live in Gloversville.
“Code Blue has already started, we’re already getting the reports, and there’s no shelter,” Wilkinson said. “To get shelter people have to get to the Department of Social Services [located at 4 Daily Lane, Johnstown] where they will book you a hotel for the night.”
The pastor and the Center of Hope operated the Code Blue shelter from Jan. 15 to April 30, thanks to $25,000 worth of funding from the city government. That was 11 days after the Common Council voted to change the zoning code to expressly prohibit Code Blue temporary shelters inside the “Form-based Downtown Overlay District,” which includes 33 Bleecker St. The zoning change also expressly allowed for the first time for Code Blue shelters to operate in the city’s other commercial zone.
The $25,000 in city funding paid the Center of Hope’s cost to rent 144 E. Fulton St. and for the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless of Albany to provide four staff members at the location.
Wilkinson said he doesn’t think 144 E. Fulton St. was an effective location for a shelter and, even if it were, his church doesn’t have the money to attempt to operate it there for a second season. It would need help from the city, which it is currently suing in the Fulton County Supreme Court.
“We had nine different people that came throughout the season, never had more than three on a night,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not a viable option. For one, it was too far, everybody is downtown. The homeless population is downtown, and when there [are] feet of snow on the ground, it’s hard for them to walk, carrying all of their stuff that far. That came from them. We asked [the homeless] why they didn’t come. We’ve identified 81 homeless people in Gloversville and that location can house nine people.”
Wilkinson’s church filed an Article 78 lawsuit in March seeking to annul the city’s denial of a permanent certificate of occupancy for a Code Blue homeless shelter at 33 Bleecker St. The lawsuit was filed by attorney Benjamin McGuire of the Gloversville-based law firm Wood Seward, McGuire & Sacco.
“We have to wait for the city to respond, because the city hasn’t actually responded to the lawsuit yet,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson’s church owns and operates 33 Bleecker St., which it has renamed the “Center of Hope,” operating a food pantry two days a week from the first floor of the building. The Center of Hope also has a five-year lease agreement to rent the 2nd floor to the non-residential Rob Constantine Recovery Community and Outreach Center. In addition, it recently began a partnership with the Gloversville Enlarged School District to create the “The Loft — Center of Hope Youth Center,” a secular, after-school program for students grades 6-12, operating two days per week from 3 to 5 p.m on the third flood.
Wilkinson said the other programs operating at 33 Bleecker St. would not interfere with a temporary shelter, which would only operate after 6 p.m., under the rules of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 executive order, which mandated that county’s allow temporary shelters to operate for the homeless on nights during which the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Although the executive order was aimed at superseding any local laws against homeless shelters, Fulton County has never had a permanent Code Blue shelter established within its borders.
When the Center of Hope attempted to change that, it became a center of controversy last year when the city government granted it a temporary certificate of occupancy to run a shelter at 33 Bleecker St. from February to mid-April.
The temporary certificate of occupancy included the limitation that no more than 10 homeless people were allowed to shelter there, despite the building’s capacity to house up to 40 people, with separate areas for men and women with children. Despite the 10-person limit, the former YWCA building housed a total of 27 people over 34 Code Blue nights, the longest stay by one person was 26 nights, according to the Center for Hope’s board of directors.
Wilkinson said he believes 33 Bleecker St. remains the best location to help the city’s homeless people until another location is built because it can accommodate approximately 40 people with separate quarters for men and women with children.
In October, Mayor Vince DeSantis laid out his plan for how to spend the $1.5 million the city received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Part of his plan included $200,000 to, “retrofit to code an existing building in a central location to accommodate a large dormitory facility for homeless men and women.”
“Once completed, it will provide safe, comfortable shelter for the population most at risk in the community,” reads DeSantis’ ARPA plan. “It will also enable the county Department of Social Services to provide emergency shelter much more effectively at a greatly reduced cost to the county.”
Wilkinson said he’s not against Gloversville paying to retrofit a different building, but he still thinks 33 Bleecker St. should be allowed to operate a Code Blue temporary shelter until then.
“Can the city get a different shelter up and running tomorrow?” Wilkinson said. “I mean, if the city wants to operate a shelter as a stop-gap until they can open up their own, we’re fine with that. We’d defer to the city once there’s was up and running, but that’s long term.”
Wilkinson said he believes the city’s prohibition against the Free Methodist Church of Gloversville operating a shelter at 33 Bleecker St. is a violation of the church members’ 1st Amendment right to worship God through helping less fortunate people in need. He said he believes case law will back up that argument, as well as Cuomo’s executive order and federal law protecting religious institutions from unfair burdens from local zoning laws. Wilkinson said he’ll continue to battle to open the Code Blue shelter through the court system until he’s exhausted all possible appeals.
“If the court rules against us,” he said, “we’ll just appeal it to the next level.”