Tablet Local

Union Gospel Mission narrowly avoids last-minute delays to expansion

An $8.2 million project to tear down the women’s and children’s shelter at the Union Gospel Mission and build a new center, initially announced in June, came under fire at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The four-story, 40,310-square-foot building was considered a done deal by both the council and the mission. Then, when the new building plans were submitted to the city in October, the city staff realized that the initial site plan approved in 2002 limits the building to one story.

The mission needed a site plan amendment from the council, and some area residents saw that as a chance to stop the shelter’s expansion. They say it hinders economic development along the East Lancaster Avenue corridor and increases crime rates in the area.

The mission is under a deadline to get approval by the end of the year or risk losing a $1.9 million tax credit that’s needed to build the center, said Don Shisler, president and chief executive officer of the mission.

A motion by Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray to deny the site approval failed in a 4-3 vote, with council members Jungus Jordan and Danny Scarth voting with Gray to deny the site plan. Gyna Bivens and Joel Burns were absent.

A denial vote could have killed the project, Shisler said.

While the council ultimately voted 6-1 in favor of the site plan amendment, with Gray opposed, Mayor Betsy Price said the issue highlights the need to update the city’s homelessness plan.

She called for east Fort Worth residents to be part of that update.

Mike Phipps, an east-side resident, said he was homeless in the 1970s and understands the importance of support systems because he used them to pass his GED test and escape homelessness.

But he argued against the expansion, saying the shelters need to be distributed evenly throughout the city.

“I rose from that, and I know that we could all be there tomorrow. … But we don’t see this problem filtering to the west. We don’t see it coming downtown,” Phipps said.

About 20 people in the audience opposed the expansion, and more could have come had the meeting been at night, several residents said.

“I share your concerns in east Fort Worth. It is a major economic problem for you,” Price said of the homeless shelters on East Lancaster.

She voted in favor of the expansion.

About 50 residents, including homeless people and Union Gospel Mission volunteers and employees, came to speak in favor of the amendment change.

Rodney Gregg, a homeless man at the mission, said the expansion is needed.

“I was homeless and lost hope for a better life. The mission not only gave me a place to live and food to eat, but it also gave me clothing. I now also have medical care. I also take classes,” said Gregg, who works in the kitchen at the mission.

Gray, who represents the shelter area, had concerns about how the expansion plan was communicated to residents.

“All of the homeless shelters are in District 8, but homelessness is not just a District 8 problem,” Gray said before the meeting. “Most of the homeless are not original residents of District 8, but they come from all over the city, all over the county, all over the state and the country.

“My plea this morning to my council colleagues is to take a look at areas in their districts that we can all agree on and work on to move those people.”

The current women’s shelter has a capacity of 32 and does not allow men with families to stay at the shelter. Each month, the shelter turns away about 200 women who want to enroll, according to the mission’s website.

The expansion would raise the capacity to 110, Shisler said.

The center would have five rooms for men with children to stay together and five rooms for families with children. It would also include 28 double-occupancy rooms for single women, a library and computer room, a pantry with a walk-in freezer and a commercial-size laundry for the mission and chapel.

Timing questioned

Council members W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, Jordan and Gray all questioned why the mission waited until the last council meeting of the year to seek approval for the new site plan.

“When we see something fast-tracked and coming in a morning meeting as opposed to an evening meeting, it raises a red flag with us and we start asking questions: What is the agenda here?” Jordan said during the meeting.

Shisler said that the delay was unintentional and that the mission did not learn about the need for an amendment until late in the process.

The mission applied for building permits Oct. 17, said Dana Burghdoff, deputy director of the Planning and Development Department, and the zoning commission approved the application Dec. 11 by a 7-2 vote.

“I have a huge concern that we are continuing to build facilities as opposed to raising money to transition people — women, families and individuals — out of homelessness and into permanent supportive housing,” Gray said.