After a property owner stepped in and offered an alternative site, aldermen voted Tuesday to receive and file a proposal to lease out the JFK Memorial Coliseum ice arena on Beech Street for use as a homeless shelter during the winter months.
City officials would not discuss the new location at the special meeting, but sources with direct knowledge of the proposal confirmed the new site is located on Pearl Street.
Online property listings show a two-story office building with 10,000 square feet over two levels at 77 Pearl St. — one block from downtown Elm Street, just behind the old Raxx Billiards lounge. The property is listed as being available for lease through Stebbins Commercial Properties.
Details of the proposed lease had yet to be finalized as of Tuesday night, officials said.
“The need is great,” said Mayor Joyce Craig. “As a result of COVID-19 there are fewer shelter beds, while at the same time we have many more people living unsheltered in the city. An owner stepped up with an alternative property. There are still many details that need to be worked out. We are all working hard to come up with solutions.”
Late Tuesday night Michael Reed, president of Stebbins Commercial Properties, confirmed talks are underway to use the property at 77 Pearl St. as a homeless shelter.
"We are especially happy to do this to make sure that the JFK can stay open for winter sports," said Reed in an email.
Reed said he and city officials are scheduled to walk through the property again Wednesday to make sure it’s compliant with all necessary requirements for Families in Transition to use the site.
The mayor’s office and several aldermen received over two dozen emails from people opposing the ice arena plan.
“I’m very glad we could find another location and help all of Manchester, the hockey community as well as the homeless community,” Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh said.
The plan would involve Families in Transition/New Horizons leasing the new site to house unsheltered people from on or around Dec. 7 through March 31, 2021.
The new location would house around 50 people, officials said.
“The owner that stepped up today, that was really excellent,” Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said. “I met there with Alderman (Pat) Long and Alderman (Bill) Barry; they really hit it out of the park today. This did come up last-minute. I’m very happy we didn’t have to go down the road of JFK ... nobody wanted to be there. This owner stepping up and coming through at the last minute was really a game-changer.”
In one of the emails to aldermen opposing the ice arena plan, Sheri Radzelovage wrote: “Many communities, not just Manchester, use the JFK Coliseum for winter recreation. If you fill it with homeless, you will once again be harming the good kids and their families, in deference to squatters who attract all kinds of criminal activities. In this COVID winter, the last thing you should be doing is making a place of wholesome recreation for our families into a homeless slum. It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Think about the good folks who are actually playing by the rules.”
Anabel Moreno-Mendez, Mayor Craig’s community engagement manager, responded in an email: “Although there are many preconceived notions out there, every individual who is homeless has a unique story and background, and nobody deserves to be left to die for the sake of convenience. This temporary shelter would be part of our fatality prevention plan to ensure that nobody is left to freeze to death in extreme winter weather. As we continue to work toward finding a long-term solution to the homelessness issue, we understand your frustration, but it is important to remember our humanity in this situation.”
The proposal was brought forward after state officials late last week removed dozens of homeless people living in tents on state property outside the Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse and erected fencing around the grounds.
The state rejected requests from Manchester officials to house homeless inside the National Guard Armory, in the armory parking lot and space at the Sununu Youth Services Center.
Aldermen also approved an estimated $1.4 million in federal Emergency Solution Grants (ESG) funding to be spent in connection with the three-month shelter lease — $1.1 million for Winter Emergency Shelter operations, $187,160 for COVID-19 shelter decompression work, $80,000 for 1269 Café bathroom renovation work at 456 Union St., and $242,505 in CARES Act Support Funds.
The proposal involves only federal funds, not city tax dollars, officials said.
Homelessness has emerged as a hot-button issue and pitted the state’s 13 mayors against Gov. Chris Sununu, with the two sides trading strongly worded letters about who should be responsible for helping homeless people across New Hampshire.
Craig has said the state should coordinate a statewide push to help homeless people, who move between cities and towns. Sununu has countered by saying the state has given cities millions of dollars to address homelessness.