Hartford to review low-barrier homeless shelter proposal

By  PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-30-2023 8:50 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Hartford Planning Commission will consider a site plan application next month from Upper Valley Haven, which seeks to convert the former “25,000 Gifts” building on North Main Street into a 20-bed homeless shelter. 

Upper Valley Haven, a nonprofit social services provider, is proposing to renovate 608 North Main Street to create a “low-barrier” emergency shelter serving up to 20 people. 

A low-barrier shelter is open to anyone in need of a bed, including people with substance use issues. The shelter guests will not need to complete paperwork or show evidence of a need for assistance, according to the site plan application. 

To prepare the shelter, the plan proposes constructing a 1,600-square-foot addition, to expand the building’s total area to 9,400 square feet.

The first floor will accommodate 20 beds, lockers and storage spaces, bathrooms and shower facilities, a lounge and common areas, as well as a kitchen and offices. The building’s basement will house additional offices for staff and volunteers, a food pantry and a laundry room for guests. 

“The shelter will provide dinner and breakfast to overnight guests, as well as warming or cooling stations during the winter and summer months,” according to the site plan application. “During the day, guests will have access to day services that help people secure permanent housing.” 

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Michael Redmond, executive director of the Haven, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on Friday. 

Hartford Deputy Chief of Police Connie Kelley said that having additional shelter beds is greatly needed. 

“The Haven is not just serving Hartford, it serves the region,” Kelley said in a phone interview. “The winters are harsh. So obviously having an extra shelter, no matter where it is, and providing extra beds is beneficial to our unhoused community.”

The project also has raised concerns from some town residents.

Resident Heidi Duto said in a phone interview that she is troubled about a shelter taking in people without knowing their criminal background or what state they are from. Duto also questioned whether the staffing supervision will be adequate to ensure that the shelter guests remain in the facility overnight.

While the property does not abut any residential homes, there are neighborhoods within close walking distance, Duto added.

The vacant building, which last served as Listen’s used furniture store, was purchased in 2021 by arts educator CraftStudies for $290,000. CraftStudies, which was previously based in Hanover, had intended to relocate to the building but later decided to lease space at 87 Maple Street instead.

Phone and email messages to CraftStudies Executive Director Lisa Brahms were not returned by deadline on Friday.

The city of Lebanon plans to contribute funds to support the White River Junction shelter’s operation and maintenance should the project be permitted, according to Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

Lebanon, which currently does not have a shelter of its own, has historically directed its homeless residents to either the Haven’s existing shelter on Hartford Avenue or the Sullivan County shelter in Claremont.

These are the only two shelters in the Upper Valley and both facilities are frequently filled to capacity, especially during the winter months.

“Homelessness is a regional problem and no one community can take it on by itself,” Mulholland said in a phone interview.

Lebanon is currently partnering with the Haven to open a seasonal emergency shelter for up to 15 people at 160 Mechanic Street, a former commercial property on a quarter-acre of land that the city purchased for $400,000.

On Wednesday, the City Council will consider an appropriation request of $156,000 to fund the renovation of the existing building to create the shelter, which will be operated by the Haven.

The Lebanon shelter will only operate seasonally, from December through March, while the Haven’s proposed shelter in White River Junction would run year-round.

In addition, the Lebanon shelter is only intended to operate for a few years. The city primarily acquired the property because it is in the right-of-way of an upcoming project to construct a roundabout at the the intersection of Mechanic Street and Slayton Hill Road. Before construction of that project begins — tentatively scheduled in 2029 — the building at Mechanic Street must be razed.

Once a new Hartford shelter opens, the Lebanon shelter would serve as an “overflow” facility when the demand for beds exceeds the Haven’s capacity, Mulholland said.

“The Hartford facility is not going to be big enough to meet the needs of the region,” Mulholland said.

Mulholland said that the Lebanon shelter appears to be on track to open in December.

“It’s not guaranteed but we are encouraged that we can do this on time,” Mulholland said.

The Haven began advertising for staff at the Lebanon shelter this month.

At a public information meeting in September, Redmond said the Lebanon shelter would be open daily from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., and would be staffed with two employees per shift, plus an intake coordinator and volunteers, who would assist in meal preparation and engage socially with the clients.

The Hartford Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 13 to consider the Haven’s site plan application for North Main Street. The hearing will take place at Hartford Town Hall at 6 p.m.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.