The Community Connection
Homeless shelter seeks extension from Pottstown Borough Council
POTTSTOWN » The homeless “warming center” opened over the winter was so successful that its organizers are asking the borough council for permission to do it again next winter.
“Our success is compelling evidence for us to find a permanent dormitory for every day of the year,” said George Bell, who heads up
Pottstown Living in Faith Together, or LIFT, the nonprofit volunteer organization which spearheaded the effort last fall.
Doing so would allow the homeless people being serviced “to meet with specialists to try to get them matriculated back into independent living,” said Bell.
In its brief time open, the center was able to transition several regular guests into more permanent housing and several more are in that process, according to Tom Niarhos, the center’s executive director.
But there’s a zoning problem with extending the permission.
Called “Al’s Heart Warming Center,” after the late Allan Altschull, who helped start Pottstown LIFT, the center opened in the former St. Aloysius Parish School on North Hanover Street with permission from the council that was granted on an emergency basis.
The COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible for the overnight winter shelters held previously in various churches to be run due to the difficulties of maintaining the social distances needed to stem the spread of the virus.
With some of the COVID restrictions being lifted and vaccinations on the rise, Assistant Borough Solicitor Matt Hovey warned council that extending an emergency authorization beyond the actual emergency “is really stretching our zoning.”
Although the council is being asked to extend its authorization to May 22, 2022, the center still plans to close on April 30, when its authorization expires, Niarhos told council.
The request to extend the authorization has more to do with giving reassurance to the other partners involved that the center will re-open again, he explained.
“We would have a plan in place for next winter,” Niarhos said. “That would allow us to negotiate with the Archdiocese” of Philadelphia.
Without the authorization, said Bell, Pottstown LIFT would likely have to return the former school building “to the condition it was in when we started.”
Things like draining all the water and shutting down the boiler are expensive, and would have to be re-started when the center opens in the colder months, Bell explained.
Bell said the group knows it is “unrealistic” to think it can have a permanent center up by the next cold season, and so is asking for the re-authorization to allow it to move forward with more permanent plans.
Council President Dan Weand asked if the group could come back to the council in the fall to ask for a new authorization, presuming COVID prevention measures were still necessary. Councilwoman Lisa Vanni asked if the council couldn’t provide a conditional extension, which would put something in place but be conditional on COVID-19 measures still being necessary. And if they are not, “we could withdraw it.”
Hovey said that may be possible, but wondered aloud if it would be enough reassurance for the Archdiocese to allow Pottstown LIFT to move forward with its plans.
“Just think about it,” Bell said. “I understand your position and it has to be, it has to be, but please consider it.”
Weand said he will put it on the agenda for Monday night’s voting meeting.