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Welcome House Shelter Plans Met With Chilly Reception In Newport

welcome house
Michael Monks
Welcome House purchased 601 York Street in Newport earlier this year with plans to open a new shelter that would serve roughly three dozen men at a time.

Welcome House of Northern Kentucky hopes to open a transitional shelter for men, offering services that would help homeless men find stable housing and employment after their stays.

The Covington-based organization, which primarily focuses on the female homeless population, purchased 601 York Street in Newport earlier this year with plans to open the new shelter that would serve roughly three dozen men at a time.

Transitions, Inc. previously operated a residential rehab facility on the site but moved out late last year. 

However, the building is not zoned appropriately to accommodate Welcome House's plans, and nearby residents and business owners are concerned about the arrival of the shelter.

"It is definitely a great need in our community," said Welcome House Executive Director Danielle Amrine.

Currently, homeless men in Northern Kentucky can turn to Covington-based shelters like Fairhaven or the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky. But Fairhaven is small, and the Emergency Shelter only takes overnight guests during the cold season, though it offers a summer program for men.

"When the Emergency Shelter isn't open, our answer is a tent and a sleeping bag," Amrine said of what Welcome House offers men in need. "We're saying, 'I'm sorry, there really is no place for you right now. Here's your tent and a sleeping bag,' and I think we as a community can do better."

Welcome House spent $367,000 on the purchase of 601 York, money raised through grants and donations, and from proceeds of its housing development project in Covington's Mainstrasse Village. 

But because the downtown Newport location is not zoned for shelters, it may not be given the chance to operate.

Transitions, Inc. operated its services before the current zoning was adopted and was grandfathered in. 

Welcome House would have to go before the city's board of adjustment and request to be recognized as a non-conforming use. 

"My feelings are, it doesn't fit in the comprehensive plan of the City of Newport in that location," said City Commissioner Ken Rechtin.

His opinion matches those of many neighbors. At a meeting this week of the Westside Citizens Coalition, Amrine presented plans for the project to about three dozen people. Only one spoke in favor of it, while several others voiced opposition.

The arguments from detractors suggest that Newport, particularly its Westside, is finally seeing growth in new residents and commercial operations and that it should no longer be a dumping ground for social service agencies.

"Newport has a concentration of social services, providing lots of care to those less fortunate than us," Rechtin said. 

Newport does not currently have a shelter that serves single men exclusively. All of the region's shelters that provide that service are in Covington. Rechtin recently wrote an op-ed published in The River City News offering an alternative strategy to accommodate homelessness needs. In it, he suggested statewide legislation to require a facility to assist homeless people in all 120 counties, and also called for schools or churches to serve a role, too.

"(Such locations) would offer dormitory-style rooming facilities for up to 10 same-sex guests. The charity’s facilities would be provided with training, cots, blankets, sheets, laundry soap, towels, a microwavable hot evening meal, and a coffee and pastry breakfast to be served to each guest," Rechtin wrote.

In an interview with The River City News expressing his opposition to Welcome House's current plans, Rechtin said that other parts of Northern Kentucky - outside of Covington and Newport - should do their fair share to address the issue.

"This is a regional issue that we have to address with a regional solution, and by regional, that doesn't mean Covington and Newport. That means Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties."

Most other city officials have refrained from commenting publicly since the issue could end up before a board, and then before the city commission if there is a need for an appeal.

Amrine concedes that the urban core attracts a homeless population, while critics argue that that's because the urban cities are where social services are located.

Welcome House serves an urban community through its street outreach teams where it looks for people in need of services.

Meanwhile, one stipulation for further federal funding for Welcome House's proposed Newport project is that it can't be in Kenton County at all. The organization has already received emergency solutions grant funds in Covington and in order to be eligible for more, the grant must be pursued outside Kenton.

Amrine said that even without that stipulation, Welcome House would pursue an opportunity in Campbell County.

The building at 601 York Street is already equipped to accommodate a residential facility, with sectioned-off bedrooms to sleep four men at a time, and each room has its own bathroom. There is a commercial kitchen and recreational spaces, and handicapped-accessible areas. Welcome House also purchased all the furniture and equipment from Transitions, so the beds and ovens are already there, too. To acquire a building with most of the work and infrastructure on the inside ready to go, at the price Welcome House paid, would be hard to find elsewhere, Amrine told the neighborhood group this week.

If approved, the Newport project would serve about 35 men at a time, for an average stay of between 40 to 60 days. There would be full-time staff on site around the clock, and services to be provided would include help with employment and permanent housing, as well as transportation.

Amrine said Welcome House plans to update the building's facade, restore the York Street-facing windows, and install a privacy fence in the rear along the 6th Street side. 

"We're really not looking to detract from the value of the community. We want to add value, in line with some of the businesses here," Amrine said.

Still, some neighbors are upset that the building won't have a different commercial use like others coming on line in the neighborhood. 

If opened, Welcome House expects the program to run the same way its women's programs do. 

"I think the program would operate very similarly to the women's programs," said Bev Merrill, who works with Welcome House's resident population in Covington. 

Amrime hopes to replicate the women's programs successes.

"Over 80 percent of our clients from our women's shelters leave us into a more positive housing situation. They increase income, they obtain income," she said.

A zoning hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Michael Monks brings a broad range of experience to WVXU-FM as the host of Cincinnati Edition, Cincinnati Public Radio's weekday news and information talk show.