Neighbors, soup kitchen clash over new location
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Wed., Jan. 30, 2013
The St. Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen is headed to federal court in Bridgeport later this month in an effort to continue serving clients at its Cliff Street location. Attorney Timothy Bates, who is representing St. Vincent DePaul and the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, said that an injunction hearing is slated for Feb. 25 on a temporary restraining order, which would allow the soup kitchen to stay open while the case is being decided.
The kitchen was forced to move in July by renovations to its rented space in the former downtown railroad station. It moved into the former St. Joseph School, which closed two years ago, but the Norwich Commission on the City Plan voted Dec. 18 to deny a special permit that would have allowed the soup kitchen to stay open there. Bates said the petition filed in U.S. District Court cites freedom of religion under the First Amendment, as well as federal statues protecting religious land use.
“The diocese is determined to be the best possible neighbor,” said Michael Strammiello, director of communications for the diocese of Norwich, which oversees the soup kitchen. “This is a very important ministry to the church and a very important service to the community.”
“Everybody knows this is a much-needed service,” said Jillian Corbin, the soup kitchen’s executive director. “The only problem is where are you going to put it?”
Corrinne Kelly, chairman of the soup kitchen’s Board of Directors, said that the facility serves 100 clients for breakfast and 200 for lunch daily. In addition, its food pantry provides groceries for about 180 families, whom Kelly said are mostly working poor on the edge of poverty. “If the price of gas goes up, our numbers go up 25 percent immediately,” she said.
Besides meals, the facility provides a place where the city’s poor or homeless can get a shower, use the phone or computer, or receive mail. Other services, ranging from medical care to free haircuts and state identity cards, are also offered to clients on the site. Clients are helped to connect with other social service agencies in the city, ranging from a furniture bank to substance abuse treatment centers.
Kelly said that staying in the current location would mean that a substantial sum of money that would otherwise go to rent can instead be used to feed clients.
Attorney William McCoy, who represented a number of the neighbors in appealing to the city’s Commission on the City Plan, said that the soup kitchen represented “a substantial change” in use from the structure’s original use as a school, one “out of character with the neighborhood.” He said the facility’s location is not in compliance with the city plan. The city plan specifically calls for lessening the number of social service and institutional uses in downtown Norwich, and for replacing non-commercial uses with businesses.
Dennis Mitchell, whose Hobart Street home is less than half a block from the soup kitchen, said that the facility brings 200 people into the neighborhood each day. “I’m absolutely supportive of the mission of the soup kitchen, but it does not belong in a residential neighborhood, in any neighborhood,” he said. Since the facility moved in, he’s been finding trash on his property, he said.
While Mitchell said that neighbors have complained of car break-ins and people doing drugs in the area since the move, the police department said such problems haven’t been reported to them. “We’ve really not seen an increase in police response” in the neighborhood since July, said Norwich Police Chief Louis Fusaro. “If something significant was happening, we would be getting calls.”
Bruce Thornton, one of the soup kitchen’s clients, said that the facility is a necessity. “It’s time for the people of Norwich to bring their thinking up to the modern-day world,” he said. “Norwich will never go anywhere unless we do something with the homeless people."