Astoria eyes new code for homeless shelters

Astoria may update its code to regulate emergency homeless shelters.

Dozens of people had something to say last summer about whether the Astoria Warming Center should continue to provide emergency shelter on cold nights to homeless people, but the city’s development code was silent. 

The Astoria Planning Commission hopes to change that.

At a work session Tuesday night, commissioners discussed a possible code amendment that would create a conditional-use designation for emergency homeless shelters that house more than 10 people. The designation would be permanent unless the use at the location changes. 

The warming center, which serves an average of 25 people on the nights it is open, operates on a temporary use permit that must be applied for each year. Approval is not guaranteed and it is difficult to plan for the future at one location or pursue outside funding, board members have said.

“The goal of this was to update our development code to provide some guidance on emergency warming shelters in our city,” said Planning Commissioner Daryl Moore, who had drafted a possible code amendment, hoping to provide a basis for discussion. 

The goal is not to make it harder to open shelters or pile on regulations, he added. “This would actually reduce the amount of regulation,” he said.

Moore’s draft combined language other cities have used as well as some procedures and approaches the warming center has adopted.

His draft did not allow shelters in high-density residential zones, where many churches are located and where the warming center is located now, in the basement of the First United Methodist Church on Franklin Avenue.

Moore said he wanted to incorporate concerns that came up during discussions last summer from people who said a neighborhood was the wrong place for the shelter. But Commissioners Jennifer Cameron-Lattek and Brookley Henri, in particular, urged Moore and city staff to consider including high-density residential zones in the draft code amendment.

Cameron-Lattek said the concerns Moore referenced come from “a particular R-3,” the city’s designation for the zones. Organizations most likely to provide space to a shelter — churches — are located in high-density residential zones, she said. Including the R-3 zone in the list as commissioners continue to look at amending the code could generate more of a communitywide discussion about where warming centers could and should be located, she added.

Dan Parkison, president of the Astoria Warming Center board, was not present at the Tuesday night meeting, but told The Daily Astorian that under the temporary use permit, “not only is our location not guaranteed, our very existence is not guaranteed.”

Moore’s proposal “would not allow (the Astoria Warming Center) to continue in its present location and would preclude any warming center to be located in any church in Astoria,” he said. “Since only churches have an interest in donating the use of their basements or unused space … his amendment would just about eliminate any chance of a warming center in Astoria.”

Renting a commercial building is expensive and a difficult proposition for an organization that is only open to serve clients for 90 days in a four-month period, board members said.

The commissioners agreed to remove a requirement to report all guns to the police and changed language about “crime watch” to “neighborhood watch.” 

City staff plan to look over the document Moore created and return to the commission in April with a draft that incorporates Tuesday night’s discussion.

Though the draft code was intended to address emergency homeless shelters generally, the discussion often referenced the Astoria Warming Center operation specifically.

“Remember this isn’t for a specific location or specific organization,” Commissioner Kent Easom reminded the commission, a statement Sean Fitzpatrick, the commission’s chairman, echoed at the end of the meeting.

Astoria Fire Chief Ted Ames gave his take on the proposed code language in a letter to city planners. He noted confusing or contradictory language that Moore corrected in a later version.

Ames also wrote that the fire department has been “very much involved” with the warming center since it began operations in 2014. While there were a number of problems before, this season has been very different, Ames said. 

The fire chief now receives an email every day informing him if the shelter will be open or not. He knows exactly how many days the warming center has been opened, and how many days of operation remain. The fire department has not had to respond to any incidents at the shelter so far this season.

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