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New London - After the funeral of a man who died in the woods during the winter of 2006, a group of citizens decided they needed to find a way to provide a warm place for those who have no homes.
"It started as a simple humanitarian response,'' Catherine Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said. "We didn't want people to die outside."
Staff and volunteers have kept open a 50-bed shelter at St. James Episcopal Church and a day center at All Souls New London Church that served up to 70 a day, since the city stopped funding its welfare department and closed its emergency shelter in 2005. But the group of concerned citizens soon discovered that the homeless population has a vast array of needs, in addition finding a place to sleep at night.
"People don't stop being homeless at 9 a.m.," Zall said.
Next month, after years of trying to balance the needs of the homeless with the concerns of businesses, residents and politicians, the center will open in new facilities on 730 State Pier Road, out of the central business district.
It will include a shelter with 50 beds, laundry and shower facilities, a day room with access to computers and telephones, and eventually, a health clinic and an eight- to 10-bed respite center for those discharged from hospitals or recovering from illnesses. Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and the Community Health Center are expected to help, Zall said.
"It just really is a dream come true," she said.
An open house and dedication will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 16. The community is invited to see the $1.2 million facility and meet volunteers, staff and guests.
Construction has been ongoing for the past year at the former Sts. Peter & Paul Church. Workers have divided up the sanctuary, walls, ceilings and floors, and adding blue-and-white tiled bathrooms and showers. It will be a day center, where guests can use the phone, pick up mail and have a place to go, "so they don't have to sit at the train station all day," Zall said.
"They can come here and really connect with people,'' she said.
There is also a new stairwell, and an air-conditioned and ventilated second floor where 50 cots will accommodate both men and women. The former basement has been transformed into the respite center.
The former rectory, which now has a room where the few remaining members of the Polish National Church attend services on Sundays, has offices, meeting rooms and a kitchen. Programs that help the homeless with medical and mental health issues and with finding permanent housing will be located there.
Board President Ronald S. Steed called the facility "fabulous" as he showed off the renovations of the two buildings, each more than 100 years old. But, he said, being homeless is difficult, even in a nice setting.
"Living in military-style bunks, right next to someone, with no privacy and no storage for your stuff ... It's not an easy life," he said.
The shelter at St. James will be shut down, as will the day center at 19 Jay St. All services will be housed at the new facility. The group also has a van that will transport guests from the shelter to meal centers and to medical appointments. No food will be offered at the State Pier Road location.
The shelter's $800,000 a year budget is supported by faith communities, state and federal agencies, foundations and private donations. New London, East Lyme, Groton, Montville, Stonington and Waterford also make annual contributions. The organization, which also runs a thrift store downtown, has 18 paid staff, including eight or nine full-time positions. Volunteers also are a large part of operation.
"We've matured as an organization,'' Steed said.
The community seems to have matured, too. Several years ago, after merchants complained that the homeless were wandering downtown and scaring away customers, the issue got ugly. Some politicians went on a campaign to close down the shelter and move it out of the downtown.
The homeless center tried to relocate to two other buildings but could not get zoning approval. Finally, in 2011, the center received a special permit from the Planning & Zoning Commission for a 25-bed shelter at the State Pier Road site, and a second special permit for the respite center.
Last month, when Zall approached the council asking for an emergency measure to expand the capacity of the new shelter from 25 to 50, the council granted the request.
Councilor John Maynard, who had been a critic of the shelter, offered a mea culpa, saying he had been wrong, and praised Zall and her staff and volunteers.
"I feel good and honored by the commitment of the city to help us move," Zall said. "This is a nice facility, and it's dignified. ... Homelessness doesn't fix itself. It takes engagement with a lot of people."