By Dean Narciso and Rita Price
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The opening of a proposed winter shelter for the homeless will be postponed at least two weeks as government officials and shelter operators wrangle over a host of safety-related problems.
Franklin Township Fire Chief Richard Howard said the building is far from ready for occupancy.
"They have to meet the fire codes," Howard said. "I'm not going to shortchange anything just to accommodate them."
The YMCA of Central Ohio is to operate the 190-bed facility at 511 Industrial Mile, next to Creative Child Care. The Community Shelter Board would finance and govern it. Initially, they had hoped to open the shelter on Thursday.
"We're still working through issues with trying to get the building ready," said Art Helldoerfer, executive director of housing initiatives at the YMCA. "I think the community still has concerns. But as a result of working with the community and hearing their concerns, there are processes and procedures that have been revised."
Helldoerfer said he thinks Dec. 1 is a more likely target date.
Howard said he's met with two sprinkler companies, reviewed three sets of architectural plans and been part of several "good-neighbor" meetings, but remains unable to resolve the safety issues. Those include the placement of portable toilets and the building's fire-suppression systems.
"You can't put 190 people in a building without properly working fire alarms, and the sprinkler systems haven't been tested," Howard said.
Township officials must issue a building-occupancy permit related to plumbing, wiring and other safety and building-code regulations before the facility can open.
"We're not signing off on something where if someone gets hurt or killed, the township, the trustees and myself get sued."
Helldoerfer acknowledged the struggles, but said he thinks shelter officials have worked hard to address many township and neighborhood worries.
A shuttle, for example, will transport shelter residents to and from area bus stops in an effort to cut down on foot traffic. A fence also is planned between the shelter and the day care. Off-duty township police officers are being hired for security.
Advocates for the homeless say that with temperatures dropping, time is running out to help the homeless. "It's getting to the point where lives are going to be put in danger," Helldoerfer said.
Sue Villilo, executive director of Faith Mission, said officials there are opening doors at night and piling people in where they can until the winter site opens. "I'm not sure how much more we're going to be able to do," Villilo said.
"I do believe with all the work being done on everybody's part, we'll be able to get the shelter open and meet the needs of the community," said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board, which coordinates the shelter system.
Franklin County is also reviewing architectural plans for the shelter's exterior, including signs, sidewalks, fencing and bathroom facilities, said county Administrator Don Brown.
Brown wouldn't say when a certificate of zoning compliance might be issued. If it is, the shelter would have up to two months to implement the required building changes.
Some township officials and residents say they were blindsided by the late-notice of the shelter plans and are skeptical of promises that it will operate only seasonally.
The Community Shelter Board has signed a three-year lease and has invested about $20,000 in the building, Heritage said. The winter shelter is to operate until March 15.
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