On the night of November 1, the City of Charlottesville and Monticello Ridge Crossing were faced with an immediate conundrum. More than 20 homeless people had been promised a place to live in the former assisted-living facility, but the city was adamant that Monticello Ridge was not licensed to house them.
The city clamped down on Monticello Ridge, where nonprofit COMPASS planned to run a homeless shelter without an explicit special-use permit. "They needed beds," says owner Louise Wright. "Well, we have beds."
On that night, the final arrival of fall had brought a crispness to the air that meant it would be getting cold. Rather than turn the homeless back out into the expanse of night, the city relented, but only to a point. They would give COMPASS Day Haven, a local group that provides services to the homeless, a few days grace period to find the new residents an alternative abode.
"You should have seen the suffering," says Louise Wright, the facility’s owner, while standing in the upstairs lobby. It is November 7, the day after the last have left, and all around are empty bedrooms.
According to Wright, she took over the lease for what was previously Helping Hand Adult Assistance more than a year ago but was unable to find tenants for the facility once she received her state license in March. When she was approached by COMPASS about opening up the building for temporary housing, she was initially hesitant, but as she realized she could not afford to run an assisted-living facility or receive the proper accreditation, she grew excited and agreed to work with COMPASS.
"The idea was excellent," she says. "They needed beds. Well, we have beds."
Under COMPASS’s plan, Wright would take in people for what is termed Adult Residential Transitional Living, which takes people "from homelessness and shelter to full self-sufficiency," explains David Gilbert, shelter director for the Salvation Army. "Most of these people could find some sort of housing on their own but really need a little more assistance," he says, to deal with a variety of issues, from mental and physical health to legal, educational or financial problems. After contracting with Wright in mid-October, COMPASS concurrently began making plans to provide day time services there, after a similar plan to provide a day shelter at First Christian Church stalled.
Under a zoning permit issued by the city last year, Wright is entitled to run a facility that serves the "aged, infirm, and disabled." To Wright, housing the homeless fit under the terms of her original permit. "When you’re bringing in people off the street, you’re definitely bringing in the aged, the infirm, and the disabled," she says.
The city saw it differently, however, and informed COMPASS that they would need a special-use permit to operate a homeless shelter. In spite of the warning given some time in early October, COMPASS and Monticello Ridge continued to maintain that they would not be operating a "shelter," but a type of housing that fell under the already-existing permit.
With the date rapidly approaching for the transitional living center to open, city Zoning Administrator Read Brodhead made a visit to the facility on October 30, offering an equivocating response that Wright says she took to be an approval. The next day there came an outright rejection. On the day the homeless facility was to open, things were in outright disarray.
COMPASS and the city immediately hustled to find spots for the occupants, placing some at the Salvation Army and others in hotels. On November 6—the last day residents stayed at the facility—Wright filed an appeal with the city’s Board of Zoning, whose next hearing is November 20.
The day after she filed her appeal, one of the upended residents walked in, asking if he could grab his stuff. "Where are you moving to?" Wright asked. "Across the street to the Salvation Army," he said. "For how long?" she asked. He replied succinctly: "Until I screw it up."
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