For several years now, the Hundred Nights organization for people experiencing homelessness has sought a long-term solution for replacing its cramped and increasingly inadequate quarters on Lamson Street with a location that is centrally enough located in Keene to be accessible to its clients and the social services they need. Often that search has bumped into the city’s zoning regulations that lump Hundred Nights in the same lodging house classification that applies, for example, to fraternity and sorority houses.
The result: The suitable sites for Hundred Nights are in areas not zoned for lodging houses and so require a zoning variance. And that has proved a stumbling block for its relocation proposals, most notably its effort to move to Washington Street in 2017. That plan was shot down, even though the city in 2010 had granted such a variance for the organization’s current location.
For its part, city planners have been mindful of the zoning regulation shortcomings and are planning changes to the congregate living definition, which would address not only homeless shelters but also facilities such as rehabilitation homes. That’s certainly sensible at a time when the opioid and substance-abuse crisis has created additional need for treatment facilities that have a residential component as well as proximity to services.
Those changes had been targeted for City Council consideration last fall but were pulled by city staff to address additional issues relating to rehabilitation homes. Instead of continuing to be considered on a standalone basis, however, the changes have now been incorporated into the sweeping overhaul of Keene’s zoning regulations that has been under development since 2016, and which is not slated to make it to the council until at best early 2021. As Keene’s Planning Director Rhett Lamb told The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons, “the timing of it didn’t make any sense while we were also writing these new zoning districts for all of downtown.”
It may have not made sense for a logical progression toward sweeping zoning overhaul, but, under pressures brought on the by the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing leaves Hundred Nights “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” in the words of Executive Director Mindy Cambiar.
In recent years, as homelessness has increased, the shelter has found overflow space through partnership with the United Church of Christ and, beginning last year, St. James Episcopal Church, enabling Hundred Nights to double its number of beds to 48 during the difficult winter months. But Cambiar is concerned that the additional space may be unavailable or reduced next winter due to coronavirus-related concerns, such as distancing, cleaning and ventilation needs. And the economic hardship that has accompanied efforts to curtail the spread of the virus appears likely to heighten the need further as federal and state eviction moratoriums enacted to protect those thrown out of work during the pandemic have now expired.
To address the need, Hundred Nights proposes to immediately move its daytime resource center to a property it would like to buy on Water Street next to Community Way, the previous home of Tom’s Auto Service, and hopes to build its shelter there. The organization also wants to lease the space on King Court next to the bypass that most recently housed a fitness center, which would serve as nighttime-only sleeping quarters, with residents being shuttled there from the Lamson Street facility in the evening and then back in the morning.
The plan has much to recommend it for both the near- and long-term, particularly as it would move the daytime resource center very close to the Southwestern Community Services agency and other services its clients need. But timing is critical, in part to meet the anticipated increased need, but also to tap into federal CARES Act and state emergency housing funding to assist in purchasing the Water Street property and renovating it and the King Court location.
All of which leaves Hundred Nights where it has been before — needing a zoning variance from the city for the Water Street property. The King Court site, already a nonconforming use, will require city approval of a change in nonconforming use. Applications have been filed with the zoning board, and they are on the agenda for its Tuesday, Sept. 8, meeting.
In commenting on the proposal, Lamb expressed a preference for Hundred Nights waiting for the zoning code overhaul to be completed. While that would be nice from a planning standpoint, the funding deadlines will have passed by then and winter — and the increased need — will have arrived.
Hundred Nights has been more than patient in awaiting the updating of the zoning regulations, but time is running out for it and the families and individuals it serves. The city should act promptly on Hundred Nights’ applications.