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Downtown "No Freeze" Shelter Concerns Residents, Business Owners

By Jeffrey B. Cohen

November 17, 2009

The city plans to open a men's "no freeze" shelter for the homeless in an annex of Center Church in the heart of downtown, but the idea has raised concerns of nearby residents and business owners.

The Salvation Army told the city in late September that it would no longer run its shelter on Washington Street, which had operated for nine years.

Since then, the city has been trying to find a suitable replacement location. Officials say the church at Lewis and Gold streets near Bushnell Park appears to be the best solution on short notice. The shelter typically opens on Dec. 1 and stays open nightly through the winter.

Mike Zaleski, head of the downtown Business Improvement District, said his members fear the impact that such a shelter, which serves people who would otherwise spend the winter outdoors, would have on their businesses.

"Downtown property owners recognize the tremendous need that the city has with its homeless population," Zaleski said.

He said his members were interested in helping the city find an alternative, but that "a shelter like this one in the Hartford central business district is not conducive to economic development and economic prosperity in the downtown."

The city's chief operating officer, David Panagore, said the city is doing its best to find a suitable location, but has to act soon.

"What we're trying to avoid is the really bad result that everyone would share a concern about, which is somebody dying," Panagore said.

Panagore said Center Church has said that it's willing to house the operation, but negotiations are continuing. While some people opposed to the shelter have said they're afraid there may be sex offenders among the homeless, Panagore noted that the Salvation Army's shelter had no reported incidents involving sex offenders in its nine years of operation.

"These are not easy issues," Panagore said, "and everybody's got a strong perspective on it."

On Monday, concerned downtown residents brought the issue to the attention of the mayor and the city council in a series of e-mails. In one, Richard Wareing, who was chairman of the city's recent charter revision commission, told city leaders that placing the shelter at the location was a bad idea.

Putting the shelter "across the street from two apartment buildings, three blocks from a magnet high school, and right in the middle of the most significant business and entertainment districts in the city, speaks volumes about the city's disregard for the welfare of its voters, taxpayers, visitors, and children," Wareing said in an e-mail.

Councilman Larry Deutsch, minority leader from the Working Families Party, countered that "homelessness is bad for economic development."

"Those opposed should find a good alternative," Deutsch said.

Below is Wareing's email sent to city officials:

Sent: Mon, November 16, 2009 9:12:41 PM

Subject: Downtown Homeless Shelter

Mr. Mayor and Members of the Court of Common Council;

Attached is then texty of a string of emails between Mark McGovern and Mark Zaleski of the BID discussing a homeless shelter which Center Church is proposing to run from 12/1 until 3/31 at Gold and Lewis Streets.

For all the reasons set forth in Mr. Zaleski's part of the correspondence (and more, if you care to hear them directly from me) I urge the City to not pursue this. Indeed, that Mr. McGovern would seriously consider locating a facilty which the City estimates will be 50% utilized by registered sex offenders across the street from two apartment buildings, three blocks from a magnet high school, and right in the middle of the most signficant business and entertainment district in the city, speaks volumes about the City's disregard for the welfare of its voters, taxpayers, visitors, and children.

Moreover, that Mr. McGovern would urge Mr. Zelski not to speak with anyone, including, presumably, the members of the BID which pay his salary, until this is a fait acompli ("While I know that Dec. 1st is approaching, I ask that you hold off on any outreach until more has been settled so as to avoid any confusion on how an operation would be run") is just outrageous and completely opposite the supposedly pro-neighborhood, pro-quality of life orientation of our City and our government. Although Mr. McGovern suggests otherwise ("I am not the decision maker on this one ") I trust that he was, in fact, acting alone, without your knowledge, let alone at your direction.

You can see that I have cc'd many others on this, including my neighbors and Jeff Cohen from the Courant. Unlike Mr. McGovern, I believe that information should not be withheld by the few so as to better deceive and manipulate the many. I can only hope that some of the cc's on this email will make themselves known on this issue.

Rich Wareing

1 Gold Street #13E

Reprinted with permission of the CityLine blog of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the CityLine at http://blogs.courant.com/cityline/ and the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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