With Danbury Super 8 homeless shelter set to close, city to reopen 20 emergency beds at New Street

DANBURY — A former hotel that has served as a homeless shelter for over two years may be required to shut its doors at the end of the month, forcing clients to relocate to a smaller facility reopening downtown. 

The COVID-19 emergency orders enacted by Gov. Ned Lamont that authorized municipalities and nonprofits to provide non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness — part of an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among staff and residents of traditionally congregate facilities — are due to expire on Dec. 28. 

Ari Rosenberg, vice chair of the Danbury Homelessness Task Force and executive director of the Association of Religious Communities, said local advocates are “hopeful" the emergency orders will be extended.

If not, the 3 Lake Ave. Extension facility will close its doors because it doesn't have zoning approval to operate as a shelter and relocate individuals living there by the end of the month. Following public backlash, the Zoning Commission rejected plans last year that could have paved the way for the Stamford-based nonprofit Pacific House to operate permanently an 86-room facility with services, emergency beds and supportive housing. The nonprofit has filed an appeal in state Superior Court. 

"Unfortunately, the Super 8 is not currently taking on any new clients because Danbury's Zoning Commission denied their application for a shelter," explained Rosenberg, meaning it, "can only operate as a shelter until the governor’s order expires."

Now, with a city of more than 80,000 set to be without a shelter for those in need, Rosenberg said the plan from local advocates and city officials is to re-open a former 20-bed, congregate shelter at 41 New Street under a new title, “The Danbury Support Center.”

Since the Super 8 shelter stopped accepting new clients earlier this year as a result of the pending sunset of the governor's  orders, the number of clients staying at the shelter has dropped to around 20, according to Rosenberg, despite a “growing wait list” that he predicts will only increase as temperatures drop.

“Typically, in the dead of winter, there are about 100 souls to shelter,” he said, adding that in 2021, the former hotel sheltered 87 individuals at its peak.

“There were others out there ‘off the radar’ who for one reason or another did not contact 211 to request shelter,” Rosenberg said in an email. 

He added that this year, there is no reason to believe there would be any fewer seeking shelter in the city, particularly, “considering the rising eviction rates, the rising rental rates, and the dearth of affordable housing inventory.”

Mayor Dean Esposito explained more work is being done to increase capacity for the city's "most vulnerable residents," as the importance for re-opening the shelter in lieu of the season’s temperatures is heightened by the fact that surrounding communities such as Brookfield, Bethel, Newtown, and Ridgefield, do not provide beds for those in need.

In a statement, the mayor, who established the city’s homelessness task force following the Zoning Commission's decision, applauded the work done to ready the New Street shelter. But he called on surrounding towns “to work with the city to provide more resources for the homeless population in the greater Danbury area."

“This is one part of our plan to address the needs of our cities' most vulnerable, and I look forward to announcing further initiatives of my Task Force on Homelessness,” the mayor said.

“It's crucial we work together to solve our region's needs,” he added.

According to Rosenberg, the re-vamped New Street facility will be staffed 24/7 and by members of the Association of Religious Communities in coordination with the Danbury’s director of public health. But the congregate space will only be set up to accommodate “20 clients per night,” meaning, “it will most likely be at capacity when the governor’s order regarding the Super 8 expires.”

He noted the Association of Religious Communities is working closely with the First Congregational Church of Danbury to provide overflow for when the Danbury Support Center reaches capacity. 

"There is a long history of the First Congregational Church sheltering homeless men and women, and they have always been a strong support," Rosenberg said. 

"But you have to do the math," he added. "Even if we can shelter 20 at the Danbury Support Center, and 20 at the First Congregational Church, that is going to be woefully inadequate to shelter Danbury's entire homeless population, unless the governor extends the order to permit the Super 8 to continue to operate through the cold weather months."

Dorothy Day Hospitality House is unable to reopen its 16-bed Spring Street shelter because the nonprofit lost its appeal last year of the city's 2016 shutdown order over a zoning dispute. 

A Super 8 becomes a shelter

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Danbury's shelters closed and individuals experiencing homelessness were moved into the Super 8 under the governor's executive orders. The facility operated as both a hotel and shelter until spring 2021, when state’s Department of Housing secured $4.63 million in federal money for Pacific House to purchase the building to operate as a permanent shelter.

Pacific House first submitted an application to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance to the allowable zoning uses in the area before withdrawing the request as a result of public backlash, which came despite a prior memo from city staff stating the request would be “consistent with the city’s Plan of Conservation and Development,” according to court filings.

In August 2021, the nonprofit submitted an application to the Danbury Zoning Commission to amend the allowable uses to include a “transitional shelter for the homeless” in order to distinguish between the congregate-style “shelter for the homeless” already included in allowable uses for the area, according to court filings.

The city’s Zoning Commission struck down the application for the amendment with a 6-3 vote after heated public debate on the matter that included nearly 800 pages of submitted documents and more than 19 hours of public testimony stretching over four public hearing sessions.

In a lawsuit filed by Pacific House in December 2021, the nonprofit alleged the commission’s denial was “invalid,” for reasons including allegations of “an abuse of legislative discretion, arbitrary and capricious,” along with the decision being, “inconsistent with the obligations of a zoning commission under state statues; and not supported by sufficient evidence in the hearing record…”

It is unclear if Pacific House will continue its legal action against the Zoning Commission’s decision. A status conference on the lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 20. Representatives of the nonprofit could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Re-opened shelter is re-vamped

Rosenberg explained how the former New Street shelter, closed as a result of COVID-19, will not look the same when the doors do re-open, explaining how task force’s chair, Robert Botelho, of Victorian Associates, donated “considerable labor and supplies to completely renovate the facility in time for it to be reopened.”

"It’s really amazing what he did with the place," Rosenberg said. "He did the whole thing on his own dime, out of the kindness of his heart and his compassion for providing dignified shelter for everyone who needs it."

Rosenberg expressed a hope, with approval from zoning officials, that the Super 8 building could be converted into 40-unit affordable housing development, which he said would be “a win-win for the city” in terms decreasing the size of the homeless population while increasing the affordable housing inventory.