It holds the potential for a warming outcome — quite literally for some who might find themselves needing emergency shelter when cold weather arrives. Last week, Keene’s zoning board of adjustment granted a variance for two adjacent Water Street parcels next to Community Way that will enable the Hundred Nights organization for the homeless to proceed with its plan to purchase the parcels. This bodes well for helping address the community’s emergency sheltering needs for both the near and long term.
On the immediate horizon are the significant financial pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that are contributing to rising homelessness. Hundred Nights has — in non-COVID times — capacity for up to 24 beds at its Lamson Street facility, which also serves as a daytime resource center for the homeless. In recent years, as homelessness in the city has increased, the United Church of Christ and St. James Episcopal Church have generously made available up to 24 additional overnight spaces in the late fall and winter, which has provided Hundred Nights important flexibility for sheltering homeless families as well as addressing overflow needs.
But the coronavirus changes all that. Social distancing and other health precautions necessary to protect both guests and staff make it difficult for Hundred Nights to safely maintain its overnight housing capacity at the Lamson Street location and may make unavailable the additional two dozen spaces at the two churches. Adding to the concern is that with enhanced coronavirus unemployment benefits and housing assistance either reduced or running out as cold weather approaches, demand for emergency housing seems poised to increase further.
The variance granted by the zoning board makes it possible for Hundred Nights to address that need. The Water Street location — previously home to an auto service shop — has two existing structures that Hundred Nights told the board it can renovate to accommodate additional space to meet its overall target capacity of 48 beds if COVID limitations cause the Lamson Street facility or the church overflow options to fall short of the target. Hundred Nights also said that, assuming the variance decision is not appealed, it will drop its separate application to provide additional overnight housing at a former fitness center on King Court. In short, it’s a good solution for meeting the looming challenge.
The variance also is significant for Hundred Nights in realizing its long-term goal of finding a better, permanent home for its operations. The variance will enable the organization to tap into federal CARES Act funding to help purchase the Water Street location and to proceed with its plan to build a new facility there for its overnight housing and daytime support center operations and leave its inadequate Lamson Street location. The new site is a sensible one, located close to Southwestern Community Services and other social services agencies that provide needed resources to people experiencing homelessness in finding permanent housing and other solutions to their situation.
Obtaining the variance is only one step on that path for Hundred Nights. In addition to getting its CARES Act and other funding sources lined up, its plans for a new facility will still face additional public scrutiny as they go through the city’s planning board process. Still, for an organization that has in recent years been turned away from other locations in its effort to meet rising homelessness, clearing the zoning board hurdle was a significant accomplishment, both to address the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and to help those needing emergency shelter and support beyond the pandemic.