Hartford’s South Park Inn — the shelter on Main Street for people experiencing homelessness and a fixture in the South Green neighborhood since 1984 — may accelerate relocation plans now that the city has offered possible federal coronavirus funding designated to fight homelessness.
The city’s discussions with South Park Inn are at an early stage, and no dollar amounts, alternative locations or a timetable have been set. But the offer comes as the shelter and soup kitchen in a former church across from Barnard Park examines the need for additional and more modern space.
The need to move to move away from dormitory-style of sheltering became abundantly clear in the COVID-19 pandemic, Jane Banks, South Park Inn’s executive director, said.
“We’ve got curtains (between beds) and we’ve certainly got ways to keep people safe, but it is not the best solution,” Banks said. “It is time for us to really move and just be in a space that’s more conducive to the work that we’re doing. We need to get ourselves into the 21st century.”
A potential relocation of the South Park Inn — once the home of the South Park Methodist Church — is heating up at time of major change in the surrounding neighborhood.
A new $26 million, mixed-income apartment development just north of the shelter at the intersection of Park and Main streets is well underway, the first rentals coming on the market soon.
Barnard Park also is the focus of plans to make the streets in the area and the park more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. The small park is often used for free food distribution, and last week law enforcement and nonprofit groups gathered there to give away 100 bicycles to people experiencing homelessness. The small park is also a location for documented drug dealing.
As the new apartments are built, Banks said she is well aware of the concerns that have been raised about the location of shelter. Some of those, however, existed even before she became executive director.
“We have folks who have supported us and have known there has been some friction between the city and the organization, but we’re ready, we’re ready to relocate,” Banks said. “I think it’s coincidental that the development next door is almost ready to open up, and we’re thinking about moving.”
Banks said the shelter has been working to be a good neighbor to the new development.
“We’re looking at ways right now where our clients will be coming in from a different side of the building,” Banks said. “I know that people are concerned about folks in the park, they’re concerned about the shelter. Those are things people have talked about way before me.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said he is supportive of the relocation of South Park Inn that now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the new apartments and is dwarfed by them. Bronin said the shelter and the apartments could co-exist, “but that doesn’t mean there might not be better places.”
“The question is whether it is the right location for South Park Inn, or whether there are other locations that might make more sense for a number of reasons,” Bronin said.
Ever since the plans for the Park and Main development solidified, there have been lingering questions about the compatibility of the new construction and the shelter.
The developer of the apartments at Park and Main, Spinnaker Real Estate Partners of South Norwalk, which is partnering with Hartford-based Freeman Cos. on the project, said it understands the shelter’s mission.
“Obviously, if the neighborhood is to improve significantly over the long term, development has to be around it, and make it not such a predominant feature,” Clayton H. Fowler, Spinnaker’s chief executive, said. “We certainly could work with it. Is it preferable to have it elsewhere? Probably, but we really haven’t looked at it carefully enough.”
Fowler said he received a call from Banks several months ago, but the two did not connect. He said he would reach out this week.
Joshua Michtom, a Hartford city council member, and a member of the Working Families Party, said he does worry about gentrification, as a secondary effect of the shelter’s move.
“I think the only thing to be vigilant now is that South Park really does get everything it needs, and that the new location, when it is found, is as convenient to the population being served as the present one,” Michtom said. “There is always, I think, a desire in some quarters to move services for the homeless, services for the drug addicted, services for the poor out of whatever are the central and presumably desirable spaces and to the periphery.”
Banks said she has explored potential renovations at the church, but the options for expansion are limited. There is no room for more clinical services and a dental office, plus the shelter’s operations are now split between two buildings and should be all under one roof, Banks said.
“I want all that, and I’m never going to have it where we are,” Banks said.
The South Park Inn’s board had decided against launching a capital campaign to raise funds to move to a new location.
“So, for me, this is perfect timing,” Banks said.
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