Noe Valley Voice April 2000

Homeless Shelter Opens Amid Continued Opposition

By Suzanne Herel

A temporary shelter for homeless gay youth won city permission to open its doors March 6, but a small contingent of neighborhood residents is still fighting it.

The opponents say the shelter's home, within the Golden Gate Metropolitan Community Church at 1508 Church Street, fails to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that governs handicapped access.

In February, local resident Darlene Crisp, a member of the Noe Valley Community WorkGroup, filed a complaint with the city's Board of Permit Appeals. Her appeal is backed by attorney Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. The Permit Board agreed to hear the complaint on March 29.

Both Crisp and Roddick questioned whether the church met the same ADA and code requirements faced by other businesses affording public access.

"I'm concerned about the manner in which the city codes are being applied," said Roddick, who runs his law practice out of an office at 24th and Castro.

Roddick argues that other business owners in Noe Valley have had to spring for pricy renovations to conform with the ADA when getting permits to do remodeling.

But the city issued a permit for the shelter without requiring such upgrades, even though the church installed showers and made other building improvements.

"The church is getting special treatment," Roddick said. "I don't see anyone telling them they have to do these things."

On the contrary, says church pastor Jim Mitulski, everyone has been telling him what to do. He sees Roddick's concerns over handicapped access as just thinly veiled opposition to his program.

Conceived as an emergency winter shelter, the program has been delayed three months by neighborhood outcry. It wound up starting the same month it was originally set to end. The 12-week program, which serves youth ages 18 to 23, now will operate through May 29.

"I'm discouraged that people are willing to use building codes to prevent this service from being performed," Mitulski said. "But every time I go [to the shelter] I'm so happy we're doing this."

Mitulski added that he was working with the city to install a wheelchair ramp at the church.

However, that's not enough to appease Roddick, who says the move introduces other concerns about how the ramp will affect neighboring businesses.

Roddick maintains that his complaint is with the church and its building code compliance, not with the shelter.

"I've not made any statements of ill will against the church or against the shelter," he said. "But in the future, things should be better organized and better planned."

Aside from the debate the program continues to stir in the community -- and despite the fact that winter's almost over-- Mitulski is pleased with the shelter's progress. The 10-bed shelter houses 6 to 10 youths per night and provides dinner, breakfast, and counseling. Mitulski estimates that about 15 different people have stayed the night.

The gay youth -- targeted because of the harassment they can encounter at traditional shelters -- are bused from the Eureka Valley Recreation Center at 9:30 p.m. and returned the next morning at 8:30.

"There have been some rainy nights," Mitulski said. "And counseling, food, a shower, and a place to sleep are always useful."

The program has attracted up to 40 volunteers -- including city supervisor Mark Leno, who Mitulski said is on site about four nights a week.

No complaints about the actual program have been lodged, said Marc Trotz, director of housing development for the Department of Public Health. His office monitors the shelter and facilitates a "community advisory committee" of about 10 neighbors and merchants who keep an eye on activities.

Though neighbors have expressed concern about the shelter returning next year, Mitulski said he doesn't envision a second round in Noe Valley. He hopes that by next winter, the city will have come up with a plan for an alternative shelter.

But, he said, "I'm not saying that we won't continue to use our resources to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized."

Meanwhile, Gracie Atherton, head of the Noe Valley Community WorkGroup, thinks Noe Valley residents are the ones who have been marginalized.

"People in this area feel that the city has a hidden agenda to put shelters and drug rehab centers in select neighborhoods -- Noe Valley being the most recent example of how the city pushed one through in spite of neighborhood opposition," she said.

Not only is the MCC's building on Church Street ill-suited for a homeless shelter, Atherton said, but the program is in her view a waste of taxpayer money.

(The city has provided $54,000, most of which goes to the Ark of Refuge -- the group actually running the shelter -- to pay for supplies, food, staffing, and other services.)

"I want to see the mayor and the supervisors address homelessness with a citywide plan that is efficient and cost-effective," Atherton said.

"Is this beneficial and cost-effective?" she asked. "If two people in three months go into social services and get their lives together, is that worth it? I don't think so."

To volunteer at the shelter, contact Tawnee Walling at 865-2752. Anyone interested in taking advantage of the shelter's services can schedule an interview with Mitch Thompson at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center.