“Tomorrow I get up, I go to work, and feed people,” said Samaritan Center executive director Mary Beth Frey minutes after a community meeting in Hawley Green at which the center announced it was abandoning plans to relocate its charitable operation from St. Paul’s Cathedral downtown to the near North Side.
The proposed move ignited a firestorm of neighborhood opposition in August after a city planning board approved the Samaritan Center’s request for a zoning variance for their preferred site at James and Catherine streets. The Northeast Hawley Development Agency, local businesses and even advocates for the homeless expressed concerns that an operation that feeds as many as 300 people daily would overload a struggling neighborhood described by residents as “saturated” with social service agencies and needy people.
About 40 neighbors gathered at Laci’s Tapas Bar along with city and county officials on the night of Monday, Sept. 23, to meet Frey and Samaritan Center board members Matt Lumia and Jim Miller. Opponents of the move had prepared statements for what they expected to be a contentious session. Instead, the discussion took a very different turn after Lumia announced that the center would look for another site.
According to Jim Miller, an architect who leads the Samaritan Center’s board, the decision was made a few days earlier.
“We weighed all the factors and the issues,” said a clearly disappointed Miller. “We thought we could have been good neighbors. We had all the legal right to do it, but we understand the neighborhood and their feelings. We looked at our guests and our staff and realized that this was not the right neighborhood for them.”
Now the search for a new home for the Samaritan Center feeding program starts again from square one.
“We worked on this for two years,” said Miller. “We looked at 18 buildings. We went block by block, working our way from center city, and when I walked into the Catherine Street location, I felt it was a beautiful space for our program.”
A number of neighbors suggested that the Samaritan Center, which has clearly outgrown the unheated and inaccessible basement it has occupied for 32 years, break its feeding operation into smaller satellite locations scattered throughout the city.
“We looked at satellites,” said Miller, “but then you have to look at increasing staff, increasing overhead, and that would increase the amount of donations we would need.”
The Samaritan Center relies completely on private donations.
County Legislator Bob Andrews, who represents the area, says he held several conversations with center staff and directors before their announcement. “I told them that when a neighborhood is unified, the neighborhood wins. Do you want to spend your time and your donated money on a fight?”
Andrews suggested that the Samaritan Center meet with other agencies that have faced similar relocation issues. “They’ll find another location. This kind of thing happens all the time,” he said.
Asked for an example of a program serving such a sizeable population moving within the city, neither Andrews nor city planning director Andrew Maxwell could think of a comparable example.
“Trust us,” said board member Matt Lumia. “We’ve looked at every place imaginable.”
For the neighbors, the dominant feeling was expressed by Michael DeSalvo, whose hairstyling shop is just across the street from Laci’s and who was among the leaders of the uprising.
“I’m relieved,” he said, before heading home for the night.