Zoning Practice — February 2010

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Margaret Wuerstle, AICP, author of the January 2010 Zoning Practice article "A Sound Approach to Regulating Social Service Facilities."

Question from Jeff Labahn:

My questions concern facilities for the homeless in our community. Currently, homeless individuals are accommodated during the overnight hours throughout the year in various churches on a rotating basis. Essentially there are seven churches that open their doors to the local homeless population one night a week on a rotating basis. These facilities are operated under a conditional use permit granted by the city which includes hours of operation, capacity limits, etc. The coordinating faith-based group has established rules that exclude persons who show up under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Recently, an existing daytime facility that provides support services for the homeless (e.g., counseling, job training, etc.) opened their facility during the nighttime hours to take in those homeless under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They technically do not qualify as a shelter as currently defined in our ordinance since there is not any "lodging" provided ... only tables and chairs. The city police department has found them to be a valuable resource to provide them a safe and warm place to spend the night. However, this facility does not have expressed permission to operate in this manner, and the neighborhood is upset. Can you provide some options of addressing this "wet" shelter?

Answer from author Margaret Wuerstle:

Shelters that allow individuals still using drugs and alcohol are important. Otherwise, these individuals will be wandering the streets without a safe or warm place to stay and that could potentially result in many undesirable behaviors. However, these uses also need to be located appropriately, and you need regulations in your code to ensure that all uses are appropriately sited.

Even though this facility does not have beds, they are providing lodging. One definition of "lodging" in Webster's dictionary is "a temporary place to stay." Federal law defines a homeless person as one who "lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence ... and has a primary night residence that is: (a) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter ... (b) an institution that provides temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (c) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings" (APA Policy Guide on Homelessness, 2003).

Does your code have a definition of lodging, and does it specifically prohibit you from applying it in this situation? You might want to amend your definitions of "lodging" and "shelter" to address situations such as this. Also, determine if this is a temporary or permanent arrangement. If this is a temporary emergency use for extreme temperatures, it may be more acceptable than the alternative. If it is a permanent use, the facility should not be allowed to sidestep the regulations. Absent regulations in your code, you may be able to negotiate a Good Neighbor Agreement or work with the operators to locate a more acceptable site.