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United Way of Lancaster County


Zoning board OKs homeless shelter at Otterbein church, postpones consideration of homelessness hub

Otterbein United Methodist Church, left, and 132-34 S. Prince St. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)

The group that oversees area homelessness services has received zoning approval for one of its two expansion projects in Lancaster.

The other, however, will have to wait at least a little while longer.

The Zoning Hearing Board granted permission Monday for an emergency shelter at Otterbein United Methodist Church, 20 E. Clay St., that the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition plans to open the site Dec. 1. It is to operate from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily.

The coalition and its parent entity, the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, had also hoped to secure approval for the homelessness services hub it is planning in the 100 block of South Prince Street in the former neighborhood services building.

However, the board postponed hearing that application due to a conflict-of-interest concern. Its solicitor, Beth Ebersole, is employed by the firm Blakinger Thomas, which does legal work for the redevelopment authority. A substitute solicitor had been scheduled to appear in Ebersole’s place but was unexpectedly detained.

The board will try to schedule a special hearing, city Zoning Officer Jameel Thrash said. Otherwise, the case will be heard at the next regular meeting, Nov. 27.

That’s a concern, said Deb Jones, who heads the office of the homelessness coalition at the redevelopment authority.

“There is strong potential for a delay of the project” due to the hearing postponement, she said. “Time is of the essence.”

The coalition is hoping to open the homelessness services hub in fall 2024. It’s expected to offer short term crisis housing, longer term supportive housing and a center where case managers can work with clients. It is budgeted at $5.2 million.

From left, Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority Human Services Director Deb Jones, attorney Charles Suhl and the Rev. Jonette Gay of Otterbein United Methodist Church testify before the Zoning Hearing Board on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The Otterbein shelter

The Otterbein shelter is intended to expand capacity in the near term. Located in the church basement, it will have 40 beds, the same as the shelter at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is operated by the Lancaster County Food Hub under a contract with the coalition.

The Homelessness Coalition has protocols for expanding shelter capacity during “Code Red” heat waves in the summer and “Code Blue” storms and cold snaps in the winter. Otterbein will have the flexibility to accommodate another 20 individuals during those emergencies, Jones and attorney Charles Suhr of Stevens & Lee told the board.

The Rev. Jonette Gay, Otterbein’s pastor, told the board that the church isn’t used by anyone else overnight, and that there is more than enough space in its parking lot to meet the city’s parking requirements for the shelter.

She and Jones said the shelter would have a net positive impact on the neighborhood, providing a “warm safe dry place for individuals” who otherwise would likely sleep outdoors nearby.

“We want to share our sacred space,” Gay said.

Suhr petitioned the board to allow the shelter “by right,” as part of the church’s core mission. Chief city Planner Douglas Smith, however, said the city considers shelters and churches to be distinct uses and that conflating the two would create regulatory difficulties.

He asked the board to instead authorize the shelter by granting a “use variance,” which it did.

Board member Michaela Allwine recused herself from the vote because she is employed by the redevelopment authority, serving as its director of housing and community development.

The shelter is to continue operations through April 2024. It is being funded with $800,000 provided by the city from its federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation. Whether it continues beyond April 2024 will be determined by the city and coalition based on need at that time, Jones said.

In September, the coalition issued a request for proposals for an organization to run the shelter’s daily operations. It had hoped to award a contract by Oct. 18; however, the process is still ongoing, Jones said.

“We are actively engaging in conversations with local social service providers with experience in homelessness,” she said. “The operations of an emergency shelter are an immense undertaking, both in capacity and coordination of care.”