Neighbors fight ‘ridiculous’ plan for homeless shelter in former Danbury motel

DANBURY – Neighbors are stepping up their opposition to a plan to turn a former motel into a permanent homeless shelter ahead of a public hearing next week.

Community members created a “Protect Our Children” website, petition and anti-project signs, which are supported by city and state officials, as well as homeless advocates. Some residents say they saw crime increase in their neighborhoods after homeless people moved into the motel in the spring of 2020.

“It’s not about homelessness,” said Jeff Berlant, who lives on Fairlawn Drive and pitched the idea for the petition and the signs. “It’s about protecting the children of the community.

The zoning commission will hold a public hearing on the project at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on Zoom. Community members submitted around 50 letters opposing the shelter.

Homeless people have been staying at the former Super 8 Motel on Lake Avenue Extension since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when traditional shelters closed. Danbury City Council last year approved a concept to use federal money to make the shelter permanent. A Stamford-based nonprofit and the state’s Housing Department coordinated in the spring to purchase the building with nearly $ 4.63 million in federal funds.

The 86-room shelter is intended to provide support services, such as addiction, housing and employment counseling, to help clients become self-employed. More than 100 people have already been relocated thanks to the program.

The city’s old shelters did not have the resources to provide these services, Mayor Joe Cavo said.

“This is really the only big advantage of this project, is the fact that there are services provided,” he said.

Pacific House, the Stamford-based nonprofit that runs the shelter, plans to offer 48 supportive housing units, with the rest of the rooms being used for emergency beds.

“The model here is to have a building in which there are units which are what are called emergency beds and others which are units with support services,” said Timothy Hollister, lawyer. of Pacific House. “The idea is to have a mix of these in one building.”

He plans to address residents’ concerns during his presentation on Tuesday.

Neighbors feel ignored

Resident Ben Doto said he was okay with the motel being used temporarily, but maintains there was not enough transparency during the process to make it permanent. The meetings, including the one scheduled for Tuesday night, were held virtually due to COVID-19, which Doto says is a barrier for elderly or low-income residents who may not have internet access.

“We understand what they’re trying to do,” said Doto, who has lived on Ridge Road for 22 years, about half a mile from the property. “We just believe the city puts the needs of out-of-city foreigners ahead of the needs of surrounding residents.”

With city council on board and the property purchased before zoning approval, neighbors fear the project is inevitable. They held neighborhood meetings anyway.

“We will not go down without a fight,” said Berlant.

Neighbors said they want to support the homeless, but the shelter is bigger than Danbury’s needs. The shelter will eventually serve the area – a burden Danbury shouldn’t have to shoulder on its own, they argued.

“Other homeless shelters need to be looked into in other communities and whether or not they have met the needs of the community,” said Barbara Davis, who lives on Ridge Road, about a half mile away. from the refuge. “We have.”

Although the shelter has 86 rooms, the applicants requested to serve up to 172 guests in the event of an emergency. Winter weather is an example of an emergency, Hollister said. Current regulations limit shelters to 20 beds per lot.

Doto said he would support this type of shelter model if it was smaller and in a different location.

“It’s good to do it under the 20-bed model and do it downtown,” he said. “One hundred and seventy-two beds is, once again, outrageous and too big for a neighborhood to accommodate. “

Cavo does not expect 172 beds to be needed as the city has never seen this level of demand at the now closed New Street and Dorothy Day Hospitality House shelters.

The building is not the “mega-shelter” residents have described, he said. The number of emergency beds is not much higher than that of the downtown shelters offered combined.

Safety concerns

More than 700 people have signed the online petition against the project. Neighbors have claimed an increase in crime, such as drug dealing, vagrancy, begging and prostitution.

“People are afraid, depending on what neighborhood you live in, to send their children to the front yard,” Doto said. “We saw strangers walking in our neighborhood, in our woods. There have been thefts. I have personally witnessed prostitution in the parking lot in broad daylight.

Calls for service in seven residential streets near the shelter from May 18 to September 22 did not show an increase in reported crime, Danbury police said.

“In short, based only on the incidents reported to us, it does not appear that the shelter has had a significant impact on crime or calls to police in the area at this time,” the chief said. Patrick Ridenhour in a memo sent to the mayor on Wednesday. .

Doto said he no longer reported incidents to the police.

“I stopped calling the cops years ago because the city is not doing anything about it,” he said.

Rachel Halas, who retired in May after 25 years as a Danbury cop, said the shelter has and will be a burden on emergency services.

“The idea is ridiculous,” said Halas, who lives near the shelter.

As a cop, she frequently reacted to crime near the New Street Shelter and the Dorothy Day Hospitality House on Spring Street.

Neighbors had complained about crime around Dorothy Day, sparking a zoning controversy and ultimately a city closure order that a judge approved earlier this year.

“The shelters on New Street and Spring Street were the hub of criminal activity,” said Halas.

Now she says she sees the same type of crime in her neighborhood.

Guests at the shelter walk in the morning on the extension of Lake Avenue and in neighboring neighborhoods, Berlant said. His neighbor across the street has stopped letting his children play on the lawn unattended, he said.

Berlant said he wanted more information on how shelter clients are vetted because he was concerned that some might be registered sex offenders, for example. Mill Ridge Elementary School is about half a mile from the shelter, which is also close to the Danbury Housing Authority’s Mill Ridge property.

Chief Patrick Ridenhour said police had carried out “periodic reviews” of crime in the area.

“All I can say at this point is that we haven’t seen a significant increase in call volume or these types of calls compared to similar periods in previous years,” a- he said in an email.

The types of calls and responses are “comparable” to what police have seen in downtown shelters, he said.

Cavo said he had asked the chief to “research” crime in the area. A teenager was killed on Mill Ridge Road over the summer in an incident unrelated to the shelter.

Lake Avenue Extension is a busy street with many commercial establishments, so “it would be difficult to attribute any of these problems solely to the occupants of the shelter,” Ridenhour said in his note to the mayor.

“Again, this is entirely based on what is actually reported to us and random timelines,” Ridenhour said in an email. “There will always be increases or decreases at some point. Having said that, we certainly don’t overlook anyone’s concerns. Our patrol units have been advised to be visible in the area to deter any issues and our investigative units will deal with any issues brought to their attention. “

Cavo said he drives into the shelter area almost every day at different times of the day to see the complaints that residents have discussed. He saw people walking from Lake Avenue to downtown, but it’s not a crime. He came by Wednesday evening and said it was “quiet”.

It is not clear whether shelter clients are the source of the problems described by residents. For example, police have already been called for a suspicious person who lived in the neighborhood, Cavo said.

“There could be other reasons for the problems, but I don’t think that’s the refuge,” Cavo said. “From all I see and hear from our police chief, this is not the shelter.

But Halas said it was not safe for patrons to walk on Lake Avenue Extension, where there are no sidewalks. Accidents are common in the area of ​​Exit 4 and Mill Plain Road, she said.

“The physical location of a shelter right there is reckless, it’s dangerous,” she said.

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