The issue of homelessness in our city is real, and in danger of worsening. But there is an easy step the city can take to help address it.

We are in favor of allowing a variance for Hundred Nights Inc. for property at 122 & 124 Water St. and for a change of a non-conforming use for property at 15 King Court. Passing these zoning changes would allow Hundred Nights to apply for vitally needed funding to allow acquiring spaces for decompression. Decompression is a term for reducing crowding, which is essential during a pandemic.

Hundred Nights has been patiently waiting for the City of Keene to change the broad definition of congregate living to streamline the development process so shelters would not have to ask for a variance which is, unfortunately, still the case. We commend the city for years of hard work on a very complex change that has not been done for 50 years. However, the city still anticipates a 2021 finish on the new Downtown Zoning Update Ordinance, so Hundred Nights was forced once again to ask for a variance to meet vital funding deadlines.

During a Joint Planning Board/Planning, Licenses and Development Committee meeting in December 2019, then-Mayor Kendall Lane asked why the allowable area for homeless shelters in the draft ordinance was in just one zone, in the Downtown Growth area, and whether that was an over-limitation on the ability of the homeless shelter to be located in an area where it would be close to other social service agencies. We now ask the same question.

After years of writing a new ordinance, the draft shows just one zone for shelters to be in. Importantly, the Water Street property Hundred Nights is seeking to buy is actually in that new draft Downtown Growth zone. The King Court property is even further away from the downtown core.

Besides a limited area for shelters to go into, a pushback on these recent requests by Hundred Nights is already surfacing for both pieces of property. This pattern of pushback by concerned citizens and businesses is very common for shelters in Keene, in New Hampshire and in the entire country.

Where does this leave Hundred Nights? Executive Director Mindy Cambiar says they are up against the wall on being able to apply for funding. If the zoning changes are denied for these properties, they will be too late to access the federal funding that can make this project possible. Cambiar says, “This money is a one-time thing as far as we can tell. The likelihood of [the government] offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease or purchase a place for decompression — it’s probably never going to happen again. The deadline for the application for the Shelter CARES Act money is December 14 — but that is the ‘drop deadline’ and applications have been getting turned in and funded for several weeks now. There is a fear that if we don’t submit sooner, there will be no funding left — I heard it was half gone now.”

As Keene city councilors, we were proud to support a resolution put forth by Councilor Greenwald ensuring that Keene is a Safe and Welcoming Community for all People Regardless of Race, Creed, Ethnicity, Religion or Immigration Status. The resolution was passed by the council. The resolution says Keene is a welcoming community for all peoples. The homeless, too, are part of our community and should be treated with dignity. We all know someone with addiction and mental health challenges. Shelters are part of the equation especially during these challenging COVID-19 times. Patience must be replaced with pragmatism.

Please allow these zoning changes and follow the consciousness of a welcoming community.

Thank you for your consideration.

Steve Hooper and Jan Manwaring are members of the Keene City Council. Both live in Ward 1, where the properties in question are located.