LORAIN — The city is sympathetic to the plight and mission of the 18-year-old St. Joseph Overnight Homeless Shelter on West 15th Street, but says it’s time for the facility to rectify fire code violations, including a lack of sprinklers that is making it unsafe for those staying there.
“I completely support the mission of Catholic Charities and so does the city,” Mayor Chase Ritenauer said Thursday. “I’m Catholic myself. I get it.
“This is a matter of having a safe and habitable place for homeless people to go,” Ritenauer added.
As a midnight Monday deadline looms for possible shuttering of the shelter, Ritenauer said the situation has been ongoing “for at least seven years.”
“The state (fire marshal) has told us the city bears the liability if something happens there and we can’t have that,” Ritenauer said. “We can’t allow people to be there if we know it’s against code.”
But Catholic Charities officials contend they were told in September 2010 by city officials that a sprinkler system was not required, only to have that position reversed in another meeting in March 2012 when the shelter again sought and was denied a zoning variance to operate.
About $60,000 in upgrades have been made at the shelter in recent years and weeks to the fire alarm system, lighting and plumbing, according to Patrick Gareau, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Cleveland.
The Oct. 7 Lorain Fire Department citations for lack of sprinklers came as something of a shock, Gareau said.
“The administration has said we knew for years that we needed sprinklers but we were inspected every month and in 20 consecutive inspections, there were no fire code violations until Oct. 7,” Gareau said.
The shelter may be forced to tell the 45 men, 11 women and one teenaged girl staying there that they will have to find other arrangements as of midnight Monday.
“Right now, the plan is to allow them to come in at 5 p.m. (the shelter’s opening time) like normal and provide a hot meal, availability of showers, and let them have time to do their laundry,” shelter official Lou Maldonado, a deacon with St, Joseph Church, said.
But he’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Still, he doesn’t hold out a lot of hope things will change by the deadline.
“Nothing has really changed since 2010,” Maldonado said of the shelter, which has a capacity of 66, with 50 beds for men in the church and 16 for women in the rectory.
Ritenauer said he also hopes some kind of interim solution can be hammered out between the city, Catholic Charities and state fire marshal officials, who will inspect the shelter again next week.
The situation dates to September 2010 when, according to Gareau, the city proposed keeping the shelter open on a month-by-month basis after Catholic Charities officials said they planned to close the center.
Both sides worked out an agreement to continue operating the facility during winter months in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Gareau further contends the Oct. 7 citations run contrary to statements made by Zoning Board of Appeals officials in March 2012 when Catholic Charities tried to obtain a variance and were told if a variance was granted the shelter would then be under the jurisdiction of state fire codes requiring installation of a sprinkler system and other improvements.
And, as a result, the shelter would then have to close for lack of having that equipment in place.
“That put us in a Catch-22-type situation,” Gareau said.
Ritenauer could not be reached for further comment in regard to Gareau’s statements.
The city holds a mortgage on the Horizons site, the owner of which has continued to make payments on that mortgage, which are going into the city’s general fund.
Ritenauer said the city is willing to consider a trade of properties but can’t afford to go into the red.
The mayor said Catholic Charities offer of $100,000 needs to be increased.
“We can’t ask City Council to forget about the loan on that property,” Ritenauer said. “We’re trying to divest ourselves of real estate we (the city) own and need to do that in a way in which we don’t end up taking a loss.”