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Out of the Cold Plans Permanent Overnight Shelter in State College

Out of the Cold: Centre County may have finally found a permanent home for its overnight homeless shelter after nearly a decade of rotating it among participating faith congregations.

The nonprofit organization is planning to acquire The Meetinghouse on Atherton, 318 S. Atherton St., where it has leased space for a day shelter since early 2020.

But first the property requires a slight but important zoning map change. The shelter would be considered a ‘community center,’ which is not permitted in The Meetinghouse’s current R2 zoning. It is, however, immediately adjacent to State College’s R-3H zone, where the use is permitted.

‘Since this parcel is immediately adjacent to the R3H zone, we don’t have any issues related to spot zoning, et cetera,’ Ed LeClear, borough planning director, told State College Planning Commission on Wednesday. ‘So the solution that we all came up with collaboratively was to look at moving the line and basically pulling this parcel into the R3H zone and that would allow it to be converted into a permanent homeless shelter.’

Centre House, the emergency shelter program operated at 217 E. Nittany Ave. by Housing Transitions, has the same zoning designation as is being proposed for The Meetinghouse.

Out of the Cold program manager Sarah Potter wrote in a letter to the borough requesting the change that over the past 10 years the need for the organization’s services have only grown.

The overnight shelter would be able to accommodate up to 30 guests.

‘We would also be able to expand our day shelter and resource center hours, ensuring that there is always safe and welcoming space for those experiencing homelessness in our community,’ Potter wrote.

Out of the Cold’s emergency shelter currently operates from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily and rotates every two to four weeks between 16 locations. During the 2019-2020 season, the program provided overnight shelter for 118 guests, filling 2,473 cots and serving nearly 5,000 meals. The day shelter is open at The Meetinghouse from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

LeClear said the borough planning department has been working with the nonprofit for at least four years to find a permanent home.

‘We’re excited to get to something that finally may work but the zoning change would need to occur to be able to move this forward,’ he said.

The only other option besides moving the line on the zoning map would be a text amendment to the borough’s zoning code for R2 to make community centers an approved use. That, however, would be a lengthy process and could have unintended consequences by allowing community centers throughout R2.

Planning commission unanimously recommended that borough council approve the zoning map change and waive the $2,500 zoning map amendment fee. The commission also recommended borough staff seek input from the Holmes-Foster Neighborhood Association.

LeClear said the borough has received no complaints about the property since the day shelter began operating last year. Neighboring resident Andrew Fenelon, who noted that he lives in the nearest owner-occupied property to The Meetinghouse, said he supports it becoming a permanent overnight shelter and has had no problems since the day shelter began operating there last year.

‘I’ve been thrilled to have it there for the past eight months or so,’ he said.

Out of the Cold’s Phil Jones said the organization has received support from the neighbors they’ve talked to. 

‘We’ve had good conversations with many of the neighbors,’ he said. ‘We’ve so far received nothing but support from the area folks and we feel really good about that. It’s a win-win for the Out of the Cold program. We need a shelter and this appears to be the property.’

The Meetinghouse was built in 1927 by the Quaker community in State College and was expanded over the ensuing decades.

Sharon Schafer, the current owner of The Meetinghouse and vice president of its board, said she believes the shelter will be an excellent use of the property.

‘We wholeheartedly support the work of Out of the Cold,’ she wrote in a letter of support to the borough. ‘Furthermore, we feel this use of the property truly fits the rich, 100 year tradition of this historic building. Also as a member of the Holmes Foster neighborhood with my own home only one block away, I am personally pleased to have Out of the Cold as a neighbor.’

The Meetinghouse is technically the home of Taproot Kitchen, the culinary venture co-founded by Schafer that provides opportunities to young adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. It has grown from cooking classes to a full catering company that also offers products at farmers markets.

But Schafer told that Taproot hasn’t been able to use The Meetinghouse for its commercial kitchen because of zoning and does its cooking elsewhere. The Meetinghouse mostly serves as storage space for the organization.

Taproot is looking for another property to purchase or lease.

‘We actually would like to partner with others who need a kitchen to do a shared-use kitchen if that makes the most sense,’ she said. ‘We have partners like Appalachian Food Works and others that are kind of in the planning process with us, so we’ll see how that goes.’

Over the years, The Meetinghouse has often been home to churches. Most recently, the Nittany Church leased space there for several years but has moved out.

‘It’s hard for a small congregation to be able to support that building,’ Schafer said. ‘So they were just leasing it part-time from us. When COVID hit they canceled their services. They decided to move on. They’re looking for another location. They’ve been looking for awhile but because of COVID they have been mostly virtual so there hasn’t been any rush.’

Schafer said she is happy for the property to be sold to Out of the Cold because, even if it hasn’t been formally designated as such, The Meetinghouse has been a community center throughout its history.

‘I just believe [Out of the Cold is] a real asset to the community, providing a place for people who really need the support they’re providing, which is pretty phenomenal,’ she said. ‘It’s a good location. They’ve really struggled to find the right place and this does seem like the right place… I think that our community would benefit most from a homeless shelter in that location.

‘It’s been a long process. We’ve had a lot of discussions with the borough and with everybody else and it seems like a really good move for everybody.’