Elmira homeless shelter opens in former parish’s gymnasium - Catholic Courier
Cots are set up in a gymnasium.

A new homeless shelter is set to open in the Ss. Peter and Paul gymnasium. (Photo courtesy of Katie Rhodes)

Elmira homeless shelter opens in former parish’s gymnasium

For more than 160 years, Ss. Peter and Paul Church served Catholics on Elmira’s east side.

Now the property is poised for a new chapter of service: combating city homelessness.

A 48-person homeless shelter is due to open in November 2023 in Ss. Peter and Paul’s gymnasium, located on High Street near St. Joseph’s Hospital. The shelter will be operated by Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, which is currently renting the gym from Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish.

Should the shelter prove successful, Catholic Charities is looking to purchase the entire Ss. Peter and Paul campus, including the church building that has gone unused since it closed in November 2021. The extra space would allow for both living quarters and onsite services to be provided by Catholic Charities, which for many years has been the lead local agency in serving the homeless.

“I want to have a campus where we can also provide services that address the main root causes of homelessness in this area, and that is mental health and substance abuse,” explained Nancy Koons, executive director for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler.

Elmira homeless shelter to become a year-round operation

Catholic Charities has rented the Ss. Peter and Paul gym since the fall of 2022, using it as a “warming station” — a short-term emergency shelter that opens it doors when the outdoor temperature or wind chill drops below 32 degrees. Now, with measures having been taken to comply with state regulations for operating a full-fledged shelter — such as the addition of shower facilities — the facility will operate as a shelter year-round.

The gym is attached to Elmira Community Kitchen, which provides free meals to the community five days per week, as well as a food pantry. Both ministries are overseen by Catholic Charities as well. Koons said their operations will be unaffected by the shelter’s opening.

Catholic Charities previously operated a homeless shelter, Second Place East on College Avenue, from 2003 until it closed in 2021. The agency then used the former Trinity Episcopal Church as a warming station in 2021-22 before moving to Ss. Peter and Paul’s gym during the most recent cold season.

Katie Rhodes, communications coordinator for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, noted that Second Place East only had 15 beds, whereas the new shelter can accommodate more than triple that amount in a dormitory-style setting.

Rhodes added that the shelter stands to be a key addition in Catholic Charities’ ongoing effort to curb local homelessness — a problem that she said is worsening.

“This year, we’ve seen such a spike,” Rhodes remarked, noting that her agency is currently coordinating the placement of more than 200 people in local motels. While acknowledging that some choose to be homeless, Rhodes said that many others “truly have no other place to stay” due to such factors as eviction; family strife; and being released from jail, the hospital or a rehabilitation center. A significant percentage of the homeless are women and children, she added.

Shelter would continue Catholic legacy on church site

Koons said if Catholic Charities ends up buying the Ss. Peter and Paul campus, it will move the shelter into the church. She noted that such a purchase would be financed through government funding and a possible capital campaign.

However, Koons added that creating a shelter on the church site would require demolition of that building. Whereas the gym is still relatively new, having been built in 2004, the church — which opened in 1857 — is Elmira’s oldest Catholic church and in notable disrepair, she said.

“Investing money in it might not be the best thing to do,” Koons said.

She acknowledged that the possible razing of the church has not set well with some former parishioners. On the other hand, she said, having a Catholic ministry on that site would be a way of honoring the church’s legacy.

“As a Catholic, I feel honored that our agency might be the ones to take this property. It will always be sacred space,” Koons said.

Father Scott Kubinski, pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish, noted that the closing and selling of several local parishes in recent decades — due largely to declining attendance and fewer available priests — has been disheartening for many.

“People still lament, but what are you going to do? We can’t afford all the properties,” he said.

Given that reality, he, like Koons, would like to see the Ss. Peter and Paul property continue serving a Catholic cause.

“Catholic Charities has a mission similar to every parish. We’re all in the same church,” Father Kubinski said.

Tags: Catholic Charities, Chemung County News
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