Monday, August 9, 2021

Homeless Transition Center Eyed for N. Charlotte St.

Image from screenshot
The building where a homeless transition center is being proposed, at left, is a non-descript stucco building at the southwest corner of North Charlotte Street and Union Alley.

The non-profit group which established a warming center for the homeless in the former St. Aloysius Parish School is now seeking council support for zoning relief to open a "transition center" for the homeless in the 100 block of North Charlotte Street.

Speaking on behalf of Pottstown LIFT (Living in Faith Together), attorney Paul Prince said Paul Desch has offered to donate the building at 161 N. Charlotte St. for the use.

But the building will need $400,000 in repairs and changes to make is suitable for the center. The parking requirements in the zoning there are also a difficulty. The zoning is impossible," said Prince.

Located at the North Charlotte Street intersection with Union Alley, between Walnut and Beech Streets, the non-descript stucco building is located in the "traditional town neighborhood" zone.

The proposal is opposed by several merchants and by Pottstown Area Industrial Development, the borough's economic development agency.

PAID Director Peggy Lee-Clark told council at the Aug. 4 work session that PAID supports "collaborative solutions to homelessness," it's first responsibility is to "create the conditions which stimulate business investment and retention by working on solutions to challenges the business community is facing."

She said PAID objects to the one-year extension council granted the warming center in May, as well as any other similar facilities in the traditional town neighborhood zone.

April Barkasi in front of The Mercury building
for an announcement in 2020.
One of the business people who has made significant investment in Pottstown is April Barkasi, who owns the BB & T Bank building at the corner of High and North Hanover streets. Her growing engineering firm, Cedarville Engineering, is located in the building, as well as a business incubator for life sciences.

Additionally, Barkasi owns the former Mercury building at the corner of King and North Hanover streets which she intends to convert into a boutique hotel and whiskey bar.

"I am dedicated to this community and I put all my eggs in this basket," she told council.

"I believe the leadership will make the hard decisions and stand by the protections" contained in the zoning code, she said.

Karen Van Horn, who lives across from the warming center, said there were problems there over the winter, including those waiting to go inside "peeing on the side of the church" as well as on the fence for the Red Horse Motoring Club across the street.

One knocked on her door "asking for cigarettes and money," she told council. "there are no safety measures," she said. "I am vehemently opposed to this. It is an absolute safety hazard."

But Tom Niarhos, the executive director of LIFT who was in the warming center every night, said measures have been taken to reduce those issues. Among the changes planned are transportation for the homeless who stay overnight in the center to be taking to a center the next morning to try to get them housed.

Another business person, Tracy Purdy, supports the measure. The owner of Three Daughters Inn, a bed and breakfast that opened three years ago, Purdy also worked as a professor in city planning. "I don't see a problem with approving this, at least just temporarily, until another solution can be found," she said.

"The problem won't stop if the zoning relief is not granted," said Purdy. 

Prince said the idea behind the transition center is to get the homeless the help they need to find permanent housing and employment and, ideally, no one would stay longer than three days.

"If you don't do this, where will the homeless go?" he asked. "People don't like the location, find us a building with 5,000 square feet or more that passing zoning muster for this and we'll be happy to take that."

The matter is not on the agenda for tonight's council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the third floor council chambers at borough hall. 

The meeting will also be live-streamed via this link

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