City Council heard in detail Tuesday night from representatives of the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority about the challenges of expanding shelter capacity for homeless individuals.
What they did not hear, City Council President Amanda Bakay said afterward, was definitive evidence that those challenges can be surmounted.
“I was not as reassured as I hoped I would be,” she said.
Earlier this month, Justin Eby, executive director of the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, formally notified Bakay that the authority will not be able to open a 40-bed low-barrier shelter at Otterbein United Methodist Church by Friday.
That was the date in an agreement that City Council ratified in April. Council has pledged to release $800,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project once the authority had a site, a provider to operate it and all the other funding needed, as documented in a detailed budget.
While Otterbein was identified as the site this fall, it needs extensive upgrades, and a provider and full funding remain works in progress. On Tuesday, Eby and Deb Jones appeared before City Council at Bakay’s behest to explain how things got off track, and their plans for moving forward. Jones is head of the Office of the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition, which is based at the authority.
They requested a 60-day extension, both orally and in writing (PDF), saying they and city staff are focusing every effort on bringing the 40 beds online by Feb. 1.
City Council took no action Tuesday, which Bakay said effectively grants the request by default.
How we got here
Like city officials, “we are disappointed as well” by the lack of progress, Eby said. The authority spent months looking for a suitable location whose owner was willing to host a shelter, Jones said, adding that “words cannot express” how hard it was.
During the search, she said, it didn’t make sense to seek a service provider: Candidate organizations need to know the address, size and layout they would be working with in order to hash out logistics and staffing and estimate a budget.
Bakay questioned whether the $307,000 offered to potential providers as the shelter’s maximum operating budget was sufficient. As their name indicates, “low-barrier” shelters are open to the widest range of clients, and typically require more paid staff with more specialized training than other types.
The $307,000 was based on costs at other shelters throughout the county, but the authority now realizes that “we may need to increase that to get adequate staffing,” Eby said.
A transitional strategy
The city’s and authority’s plan calls for the Otterbein shelter to operate through April 2026. Mayor Danene Sorace said the city envisioned its ARPA support giving the authority time to develop new funding sources, setting the stage for a “warm hand-off” to a more robust level of services. Given the level of need, that strategy is looking questionable, she said.
Lancaster County currently has one shelter designated as low-barrier, a 40-bed emergency shelter operated by the Lancaster County Food Hub. Last week, it moved from Ebenezer Baptist Church to the former Benjamin Roberts store on North Prince Street after the church’s boiler failed. City officials are working with the church to obtain a new boiler, Sorace said.
Even before that, the Ebenezer site had serious shortcomings, including limited accessibility and no sprinklers. Bakay asked if the authority had ever put together a budget for renovations there.
It had learned of the issues at Ebenezer over the past couple of months, Eby said, and had developed a rough cost estimate of $1.1 million. That was before the boiler failed, so it’s not included.
The Otterbein site, like Ebenezer, lacks a sprinkler system. The renovations needed there would cost $1.25 million to $1.5 million, Eby said. The proposed annual operating budget is $1.05 million.
That suggests the best prospect for increasing short-term shelter capacity is the Benjamin Roberts site. It’s more than three times the size of the Ebenezer site, and is available at least through March 31, according to Eby’s and Jones’ written extension request.
City and authority staff were to walk through the site on Wednesday to assess in more detail whether that idea is feasible. The outcome of that inspection was not immediately available Wednesday afternoon.
If the North Prince Street site can handle an expanded winter capacity, then Otterbein would not need to be brought online right away. Eby’s and Jones’ extension request proposes going that route and having Otterbein ready a year from now in December 2024, around the same time as the planned Homeless Services Community Center on South Prince Street (which also is in line for $800,000 in city ARPA funds.)
Meanwhile, the city and authority would evaluate the Ebenezer site to see if it makes sense to restart a shelter there, the request says.
Whether enough funding will be available is unclear. The authority’s entire annual budget for countywide homelessness services is just $1.5 million, Jones said, almost all from federal grants that have been stagnant or declining for years.
“We’d be the first to say there isn’t enough money,” she said.
The Benjamin Roberts site costs $15,900 a month, not including the Food Hub’s management contract, versus $2,400 at Ebenezer.
As for Otterbein, the authority said it has $1.13 million available for renovations and operating costs, of which the largest portion is the city’s $800,000 in ARPA.
Recognizing the need, the homelessness coalition has made it a strategic priority to seek more public and private grants, Jones said, and is actively submitting applications and meeting with businesses and foundations. She did not offer further detail.
Eby said the authority will have a better idea in the next few days of what course it makes sense to pursue. He and Jones said they would be more than happy to keep City Council updated.
Bakay said Lancaster County government ought to step up with funding. She contrasted the city’s allocation of 25% of its ARPA allocation for affordable housing and homelessness services ($10 million out of $39.5 million) with the county’s allocation to date of about 5% ($5 million out of $106 million).
She said after the meeting that she’s confident shelter space can be expanded in the short term. Whether it can be sustained over two years is another question. In particular, will the city be asked to provide more of its ARPA funding to make that happen?
If that’s the case, she said, “I’d like to know sooner rather than later.”