MOUNT VERNON — The cold-weather homeless shelter at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Mount Vernon is set to close after the city rejected a request for a 30-day extension.
Instead, the city granted a five-day extension Wednesday, citing extreme cold weather. The shelter will need to be vacated by noon Thursday, said city Project Development Manager Peter Donovan.
The overnight winter shelter, now in its second year, can house 22 people and opened for the season in November.
Donovan said the ordinance the shelter is operating under allows 120 days of continuous operation, and the city isn’t allowed to offer an extension without a lengthy public process unless it can cite a hardship exemption such as cold weather.
“We told the public it was 120 days,” he said. “This was the fair and legal thing to do.”
Meanwhile, County Administrator Tim Holloran said the city and the county are working together to find a new shelter and are considering using the Mount Vernon Senior Center.
Stakeholders and neighbors got together Friday morning to discuss the situation at a meeting of the Welcome Home Community Co-op, a homeless-led advocacy group that is closely aligned with the church.
Sarah Vogt, one of the shelter residents, said Mount Vernon has to expect more homeless encampments if it closes the shelter without having a new location lined up.
She said the city should at least find a way to set up a sanctioned homeless encampment — potentially in a church parking lot — to keep people safe.
Before Vogt started staying at the church in November, she said she was on the street battling a drug problem. Now, she’s working with the co-op to interview homeless people and match them up with mentors in the community.
Like many of the shelter residents, she said she attributes her growth to having a safe place to spend the night.
“They need help,” she said of those who use the shelter. “When you’re homeless, you’re hopeless.”
Arlene Salt, a church member who helps operate the shelter, said she’s glad the city granted the five-day extension.
“I’ll tell you, I never thought I’d be praying for cold weather,” she said.
She said church leadership has not yet accepted the extension offer, but she believes they soon will.
About three weeks ago, Salt said shelter operators decided to open the church during the day, too, due to weather.
Since then, she said she’s seen even more growth and camaraderie between those at the shelter, and it would be heartbreaking if they’re forced back on the street.
“These are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” she said.
All she can do, she said, is pray that another church opens up its doors or at least its parking lot.
Tina Tate, executive director of Friendship House, said she understands why the city rejected the request for an extension. Friendship House provides transport and staffing for the shelter.
“I totally get it,” she said. “They’re just following their rules.”
In the meantime, she is working with the city and the county to find another church or other location that could house people who normally sleep on the street.
“With the extreme cold, we need to get people inside,” she said.
Holloran said it’s possible the county will open the senior center to the homeless through the end of March, but more discussion is needed.
Rebecca Lowell, senior planner with the city, said because of the senior center’s zoning, the county wouldn’t need to go through a public process to use it as a shelter. It would only need to meet city building and fire code.
However, Holloran made it clear the county doesn’t see this as a permanent tool to address homelessness.
The county and the city have been working together for years on developing a permanent supportive housing project, which could give 50 homeless people a place to live and get access to health services.
Holloran said progress is being made on this, though a project site has yet to be chosen.
“We need to find a permanent solution, a day center and shelter in Mount Vernon,” he said. “And the county is committed to that.”