Scranton Official: Homeless Mission Lacks Zoning Approval, Building Inspection
SCRANTON — The Keystone Mission homeless assistance facility on Olive Street has been operating for about 13 years without zoning approval and building inspections, the city’s licensing director said Tuesday.
Several neighbors of the mission raised complaints about it Monday during city council’s weekly meeting. Along with describing the mission as a long-standing nuisance, residents questioned its zoning. Council agreed to get the zoning history of the property at 8 Olive St. Councilmen Tim Perry and Bill Gaughan also said the city should shut the mission down because it has not been a good neighbor.
City Licensing, Inspections and Permits Director Patrick Hinton believes the mission does not have proper zoning approval. The mission sought a zoning variance in 2005 for a homeless shelter, but was denied. In 2006, the city issued a certificate of use for the nonprofit mission as a place of worship, but it apparently is not such a place, Hinton said.
Furthermore, the mission has never had building inspections, he said. It never received from the city a certificate of occupancy, a document issued after passing inspections — at least none Hinton can find in his LIP department records in City Hall.
“Clearly what they’re using it for is not a place of worship, and they never received a certificate of occupancy, so they’re occupying the building illegally either way,” Hinton said. “They are definitely not legitimate. They should not be there. So we are looking to see our next step.”
Whether that means closing the mission, and how soon, is unclear. Hinton believes the mission should have to seek zoning approval and submit to building inspections. He also thinks the mission does not have the proper licensing to serve food.
What this may mean for the dozens of homeless people who frequent the mission daily also remains unclear. The facility can get about 30 to 40
people stopping in each day, mission Operations Director Doug Hamilton
The mission is one of the few facilities in the city that help the homeless, many of whom suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse problems, he said. Shutting it down would mean the homeless would have one less daytime place to go to get out of the frigid cold or oppressive heat, and where they can receive food, clothes and other items, and socialize.
Hamilton said he believed the facility had all proper approvals to operate. Efforts to contact Hamilton later about Hinton’s comments were unsuccessful.
On Tuesday morning, Hamilton, who has been with the mission for about a year, watched a TV replay of Monday’s council meeting and said he sympathizes with neighbors.
“It’s not necessarily ideal for our neighbors and we understand that
,” Hamilton said. “I listened to that video and my heart breaks for them and I understand their frustration. I wish at the same time they could understand that our heart is that people don’t starve and freeze outside and we’re just doing the best we can.”
The mission hopes to relocate, said Hamilton and mission Executive Director John Gleason. One possible spot under consideration is an office-type building for sale at 430-444 Penn Ave., Hamilton said, declining to discuss others.
Many homeless people who live in the Olive Street area along the nearby railroad tracks and Lackawanna River walk to the mission and other nearby assistance facilities. So even if the mission closed, homeless people would still frequent that neighborhood, Hamilton said.
“Homeless in Scranton live on the tracks right now. This is their home. We just happen to be located near their home,” Hamilton said. “If we were gone today, the homeless would still be here.”
Not an overnight homeless shelter, Keystone Mission is open during the day, provides free hot meals four nights per week, gives out clothing and other essentials for adults, provides youth clothing and diapers, and also holds food distributions.
On Dec. 3, Gordon Avenue resident John Litwinsky told council how some mission guests hang out on the street and have an overall negative effect on the neighborhood. He presented information on numerous police reports related to the mission filed in recent years, as well as photos and videos of activity on the street.
The mission responded by installing exterior security cameras and lighting, Hamilton said.
Circling back to the issue, council on Monday heard from Police Chief Carl Graziano. Afterward, Litwinsky and other neighbors described the mission as a nuisance, and spoke of often finding syringes, feces, garbage and other items in the neighborhood, and seeing mission guests engaged in all types of bad activities.
Hamilton said the mission can only control guests when they’re on mission property.
“Do they do stupid things around here? Yeah,” Hamilton said. “I can’t help it if a guy goes down to the tracks and shoots up and then walks onto the (mission) property, starts to puke and falls down and I have to call the ambulance. That’s what’s happening. We deal with drug addicts and alcoholics.”
Hinton, who has been LIP director since 2014, said he never heard complaints about the mission until recently.
“Prior to this, I never heard anything, nothing that would prompt me to research this property. So that’s how it got by,” Hinton said.
He reviewed the mission history about a month ago, about the time Mayor Bill Courtright’s administration was devising a way to help address a lack of emergency homeless sheltering in the city. In February, the city agreed to turn Weston Field House into an emergency overnight homeless shelter operated by Keystone Mission when temperatures drop below 15 degrees and when the mission expects at least 20 people will need sheltering.
One of the mission’s guests in recent years, Ericka Atkinson, 40, said the mission helps keep her off the streets and gives her a positive place to go. She has received clean, dry bedrolls and clothing, hot meals and fellowship.
“They’ve always helped me out. It’s a place you can hang out all day,” Atkinson said. “I’m grateful for these guys. I really am.”
Contact the writer:
@jlockwoodTT on Twitter