big shelter not better, some argue FWD

Tom Boland (
Mon, 27 Jul 1998 19:09:36 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  The Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch  July 26, 1998

     But Open Shelter director defends site

     By Alice Thomas, Dispatch Staff Reporter

Columbus soon could be home to the biggest homeless shelter in the state.

The Open Shelter last month announced plans to buy a building at 433-435 W.
State St. that, at 54,000 square feet, would triple the size of its
current, leased home at 370 W. State.

Some homeless advocates say the building's size compares to mega-shelters
in the country's biggest cities and caution that bigger isn't necessarily

But Open Shelter officials say the space is a long overdue, permanent home
that will allow them to shape the new shelter to better meet the residents'
-- and the community's -- needs.

"In concept, I don't have a problem with the Open Shelter finally getting a
new building, a place that they own. . . . But I'm frankly a little nervous
about the size of their building,'' said Bill Faith, director of the
Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit

"Certainly the preferred model in the country is a de-emphasis on shelter
and a preferred emphasis on solutions.''

Kent Beittel, Open Shelter director, said buying the building doesn't
pre-empt solutions. In fact, he thinks it will give them the room to
incorporate them.

"This (new) building allows us to be responsive to the best thinking of the
community, and it enables us to put down roots in a time frame that allows
us to respond to the other, fervent request from the Downtown community --
which is to not be in our current location,'' Beittel said.

The current location is within an area targeted for development which
surrounds the new home of Ohio's Center of Science and Industry, due to
open in 1999.

The proposed location is one block away, just outside the area.

Faith is worried the building will shelter more people than its current
occupancy of 140 men a night. He is married to Barbara Poppe, spokeswoman
for the Scioto Peninsula Relocation Task Force, which is studying what to
do with homeless living in the area.

Those recommendations, which the Open Shelter says it will work with, are
due to the city in October.

Faith's concerns are shared by residents of Franklinton, where both the
current and proposed shelters are located, as well as by national advocates.

"If we build these large structures, we are really saying, 'We'll be
dealing with homelessness forever,' '' said Mary Ann Gleason, director of
the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

Gleason said the homeless are becoming institutionalized, and she's been
trying to turn cities on to other, longer-term solutions.

Gleason points out the high percentages of shelter residents who work -- 46
percent of all Texas shelter users and 39 percent in Wisconsin -- as well
as the problem of an expanding pool of "chronic'' residents who use
shelters repeatedly.

She fears the trend of full-service shelters, which provide clinics,
banking, food and other services all under the same roof.

Such setups don't encourage integration into society, she said.

"We certainly understand the intention of wanting to provide people with
resources they need. But what we need to be doing is making sure that the
mainstream social services system is working.''

Beittel said having services under one roof gives the homeless more time to
look for work apartments, and the like.

Some ideas for the new Open Shelter are health services, an in- house
police substation, kitchen, employment assistance and private meeting rooms.

Advocates contend it's a bad sign that homelessness has become an
acceptable part of the American landscape in such a short period of time.

In the early 1980s, when many shelters went up, they were merely roofs over
people's heads that prevented exposure to the elements.

Lack of affordable housing is the root of the issue, the advocates say.

But Beittel points out that until the housing crisis is solved, people
still need a place to sleep.

"We're here to ensure that the people survive while the better options take
form,'' he said.

A survey of urban homeless shelters in Ohio found the biggest shelter to be
the Drop In Center in Cincinnati. The 37,000-square-foot emergency shelter
takes up half a city block and houses up to 300 people a night, said Andy
Hutzel, its administrative coordinator.

Gleason said a building the size of the proposed Open Shelter is comparable
to 500-plus occupancy shelters in Washington and New York.

"There's no question it's going to be the biggest in the country,'' Gleason

Beittel says he doesn't know how many people the new shelter would hold.
But it won't be a New York-style mega-shelter. "My aversion to that kind of
mass sardine-can game is absolute.''

Currently, Open Shelter residents eat, sleep and get social services in the
same space.

"To simply do what we're doing with better dignity and better structure
would require double the space,'' Beittel said.

Shelter occupancy is determined by state building codes, which are
administrated by the city, said Joe Busch, chief building official for

Busch said occupancy limits for shelters depend less on building size than
exits, or "the means of egress.''

The Open Shelter plans to renovate the proposed site as part of its move.


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