With plans to turn motel into shelter, Danbury is on 'forefront' of effort to end homelessness

Photo of Julia Perkins

DANBURY — Advocates see the plan to turn a local motel into a permanent homeless shelter as a revolutionary way to support unhoused individuals, even as some worry it will put too great of a burden on the city.

The state and a nonprofit could close on a deal as soon as the end of this month to purchase the Super 8 Motel on Lake Avenue Extension, where homeless individuals have stayed during the coronavirus pandemic. Clients receive services, including case management and support to finding permanent housing.

“Danbury has the possibility or the potential that can be one of those communities that can eliminate homelessness or get very close to it with these types of resources coming in,” said Rafael Pagan, Jr. executive director of Pacific House, a Stamford-based nonprofit that runs Danbury’s facility.

But some in the community are concerned that Danbury is shouldering the burden of supporting the region’s homeless on its own.

“It's not our responsibility, when we’re looking at a crisis situation when funding our schools and our budget constraints,” said Mark Nolan, who owns affordable housing in the area and had chaired the Danbury Housing Partnership, which was created as part of the former mayor’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.

That complaint isn’t new. Former Mayor Mark Boughton often called on the nearby towns to help out. But Boughton and new Mayor Joe Cavo support the plan.

Cavo said society is obligated to help these individuals, regardless of whether they are from Danbury.

“If you’re homeless, then you don't have a home,” he said. “So I don't feel there is any regional or regionalization to homelessness.”

Shelters are required to take in anyone who needs a bed, no matter his or her hometown, and the Danbury shelters have always done so, officials said.

Timing is right

The original plan was for an up-to $10 million federal grant administered through the state to be used to purchase the motel, although Cavo said details on the grant have changed and that the figure may have, too. The state housing department did not return a request for comment.

The state is exploring creating similar facilities elsewhere, officials said. Federal COVID relief money approved in March could help with this.

“It's less about adding shelter beds overall and more about ensuring that shelter spaces that are available are able to support people in their transition to their next step, which in many cases is going to be housing,” said David Gonzalez Rice, with the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

If the opportunity occurred, Pagan said he would do something similar at his Stamford shelter “without blinking an eye.”

“It could be real shot in the arm for Connecticut as a whole to really have a major impact on homelessness,” Pagan said. “Danbury happens to be in the forefront of this.”

The idea grew out of COVID and the need to keep individuals separated to prevent the spread of the virus. Rather than 20 to 30 people in a room, there are two to four people, maximum, Pagan said.

“This shelter provides a much more humane approach, an opportunity to to have much more humane shelter than most shelters have,” Pagan said.

It’s also an opportune time after Dorothy Day Hospitality House lost its appeal of Danbury’s shutdown order of its 16-bed Spring Street shelter following a years-long zoning dispute.

The nonprofit, which continues to run a soup kitchen, has opted not to appeal the decision for now and backs the motel plan, said Joe Simons, a Dorothy Day volunteer.

“We’re behind it 100 percent,” said Simons, adding the group provides 60 meals on week days and 90 meals on weekends to the clients at the motel. “It really provides a more comprehensive and housing-based approach than what anyone has been able to do prior to that.”

Concerns

The experience Ernesto Rodriguez has had living near Dorothy Day’s shelter has caused him to be wary of the city’s plan. Rodriguez helped lead the efforts to shut down Dorothy Day after it was discovered the nonprofit didn’t have the proper permits.

“The region’s homeless would just come to my neighborhood, basically,” he said. “It was very difficult for the residents, the business owners. There were a lot of quality of life issues.”

He said he wants more public discussion on the plan. The city council already signed off on the idea, but the shelter requires planning and zoning approvals, Cavo said.

Nolan and Rodriguez said they have seen more problems with loitering, public drinking and similar issues due to the shelter.

“The taxpayers, by creating this regional center, are going to have the undo burden of our police force, ambulance and emergency personnel having to be responsive to that location because of the lawlessness that’s continuing to go on over there,” Nolan said.

But Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour said the department has not seen an increase in calls or issues at the Super 8, compared to Dorothy Day or the New Street shelters when they were open.

“We have been dealing with the loitering complaints in the downtown area well before the Super 8 opened as a shelter,” Ridenhour said in an email. “We do what we can within the law to address the loitering but...our options are limited from an enforcement perspective, especially in areas that are open to the public.”

This summer, the department will strengthen its presence downtown with its bicycle patrols, he said.

Often the people being complained about are not shelter clients, Pagan and Cavo said. The motel is open 24/7, unlike the city’s old shelters, which should reduce these problems, Pagan said.

“An overwhelming majority of those guests stay at the motel or come and go, but have a place to go to,” he said. “They’re not out on the street loitering.”

With Dorothy Day closed, the Spring Street neighborhood has improved, Rodriguez said.

“It’s a normal street,” he said. “The residents finally are able to enjoy their street. You wouldn't even recognize it.”

Nolan noted the motel is a short bus ride from downtown, where the city is soon installing new streetscape in an effort to liven the area, and said individuals could congregate there, hurting businesses trying to recover from COVID.

“We’ve got to fill our stores again,” said Nolan, who owns commercial property downtown.

Nolan said he would rather the state’s resources go to Danbury-based organizations that support individuals who need housing.

He liked better a previous idea to turn a building on Elm Street into apartments for homeless individuals.

How the facility will operate

Pacific House has the resources that local shelters did not to help people find jobs and housing or recover from drug addiction, Cavo said.

“We look at this as really being the future of how you would deal with homelessness, to work to migrate them into some sort of permanent housing and then work with them for job placements and offer much more assistance than our agencies did,” he said.

The facility would include about 44 units of permanent, affordable housing, as well as potentially 75 emergency beds, although numbers have yet to be finalized, Pagan said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the shelters last March, the city operated a 20-bed shelter on New Street, while Dorothy Day Hospitality House ran its shelter. Jericho Partnership had closed its 14-bed men’s shelter in late summer 2019 but ran a temporary men’s overflow shelter the following winter.

“The prior sort of the safety net that was in place was not adequate to meet the demand,” Pagan said.

Pacific House has been working in Danbury since the early months of the pandemic, providing case management to clients and trying to find them permanent housing. Since the move to the motel, 84 people have been placed in permanent housing, city officials have said.

Two case managers are already working at the facility, with plans to hire a third person to run the emergency shelter, Pagan said.

The annual operating expenses for the facility hasn’t been figured out either, but the shelter in Stamford costs around $800,000 yearly, Pagan said.

He said a contract would be created for the city and state to cover costs. Danbury plans to use the grant it previously used for its New Street shelter toward this, Cavo said.

The permanent housing units are critical because there isn’t much affordable housing stock available in the Danbury and Stamford areas, he said.

“That currently would be a big short in the arm, especially for communities that have a shortage of housing stock that is affordable,” Pagan said.

Nolan said there’s a five-year waiting list for his affordable housing units in Danbury, Bethel and Ridgefield.

It’ll take time for the permanent units to be available because the rooms will have to be updated so they are “more of a home than a hotel,” Pagan said. He’s not sure how those upgrades will be paid for yet, but he expects they’ll be done with the state.

“You can't run a shelter like a hotel,” he said. “There are going to be capital enhancements going forward to really be more suitable for the intent we have it for.”