SOUTHINGTON —Volunteers loaded the white van with the familiar Bread for Life logo Friday with Shop Rite cloth bags filled with cereal, stuffing and canned goods.
About half of the 40 homebound people who receive free hot meals Monday through Friday also get a bag of groceries to help them get through the week. Meals were also delivered to two senior centers in town.
“These are all Southington residents,” said Bill McDougall, chairman of Bread for Life’s Board of Directors.
Food is prepared in a kitchen and served in a dining hall that Bread for Life rents from the Masonic Friendship Lodge 33 on 76 Main St. Bread for Life’s food supply is stored in the lower level of the YMCA, as well as in the TD Bank building and a refrigerator and freezer at the rear of St. Paul’s Church. Executive offices are on third story of attorney Anthony Denorfia’s law offices and board meetings are at The Orchards senior living community.
Every day, the dining hall on Main Street opens from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 and about 15 to 20 Southington residents come for lunch. When there is extra food they take some home. Many clients are seniors trying to stretch their food budgets, others are young people, some have small children, and about two to three clients are homeless, McDougall said.
Bread for Life prepares and distributes 35,000 meals annually.
McDougall is protective of the clients’ identities, and doesn’t like terms like shut-ins and soup kitchen. He is also adamant that Bread for Life is not a food pantry that draws heavy traffic.
McDougall’s concern about public perception these days is understandable after Bread for Life’s application to consolidate its operations under one roof on property next to Derynoski Elementary School drew opposition from some school parents.
“It’s a major misconception,” McDougall said. “I want people to ask me, ‘What do you do? We’ll take them here.’”
Parents have been emailing school and town officials recently with concerns that Bread for Life’s daily meal service would bring drugs, loitering and a potential threat to school security.
The parents’ emails prompted the Planning and Zoning Commission to delay action on the application this week until it could hear from the public on the issue. Regulations do not call for a public hearing on the proposal, but commission member Paul Champagne said after receiving the emails the commission decided to exercise its discretion to schedule a “public input session” for Oct. 15.
Emails from residents provided to the Record-Journal by the Planning Department cited a range of concerns, from public safety to water runoff and traffic.
“While in college I spent a great deal of time volunteering at a homeless shelter with my family,” wrote JoElle Constonguary, a teacher, parent and Southington taxpayer. “Most of our clients found themselves homeless for no other reason than bad luck: victims of downsizing, mental illness, unwarranted evictions, etc. It was a very small percentage of people that were there due to their own bad choices. Nevertheless, recent events have made it clear that it only takes one misguided individual to devastate not only a school, but our whole world as well.”
“I am very sympathetic to homeless people and their dire straits and needs,” wrote Michael Abbatiello. “With that said, I am adamantly against this proposal based on its intended location. The children of this school or any school for that matter should not be subjected to the inherent risks of individuals that may pose a daner to their welfare. I’m not saying that all the individuals who will be served are dangerous. But are we as a community willing to take the chance of anyone posing a risk to be in such close proximity of our most innocent town citizens?”
Another email from homeowners David and Mary Ann Bauchiero on 302-304 Main St. expressed concerns about run off, traffic, and garbage collection. They were also worried about “strangers” near the property line.
Opting for a public input session when a business meets zoning regulations is not common, but can be done if a number of residents have questions or concerns about an application, town officials said.
“It doesn’t happen often,” said Town Attorney Mark Sciota. “These applications don’t have public input with them, so if the public is interested and has comments to make, the chairman can put it up to his discretion…”
The application did not require a public hearing because it met all of the regulations of the business zone and is not asking for any exceptions or special permits, said Michael DelSanto, the chairman of the commission.
“There hasn’t been a lot of times in the past 12 years on the board where (a business) comes with an application that brings out a lot of passion,” DelSanto said. “There was a lot of passionate people in the audience.”
DelSanto will set guidelines for people to follow about what can be discussed and how long people can speak for. Public hearings are an open forum, said Paul Chaplinsky, the vice chairman of the commission and.
Overseeing the construction is Denorfia, a local developer as well as an attorney. At Tuesday’s meeting, he said he was unhappy the commission opted to postpone action in response to emails that weren’t part of the presentation since the site plan met regulations. He hopes public comment will go smoothly.
“It either meets the regulations or not,” Denorfia said.
DelSanto said it would be a “disservice” not to allow the public to speak. He also mentioned that there were a few outstanding issues with the site plan that needed to be addressed so the commission was not prepared to act on Tuesday.
McDougall, the Bread for Life chairman, said Tuesday that if anyone has concerns they could talk to Bread for Life members or visit the organization to see how they operate and what goes on.
No one had contacted him by Friday, he said.
“We want the public to be able to weigh in on this,” said Steve Kalkowski, a commission member. “It allows us to hear the same story and look people in the eye and watch their emotions and passions.”
The PZC’s Kevin Conroy declined to comment since the issue was still open, while James Sinclair recused himself from the discussion during the commission meeting because of his involvement with Bread for Life.
Stephanie Leavitt, a Derynoski parent, said the issue had gotten nasty lately with the parents being called “stuck up” and “over protective.” She said she admires and respects Bread for Life and what it does, she just doesn’t agree with the proposed location. As a real estate agent, she’d like to see the town help the charity find another spot.
Leavitt and other parents have been reviewing statistics and have concerns about the homeless people the center serves.
“There is a portion there that are homeless, and they have said they will not turn anyone away,” Leavitt said. “Statistics show that more homeless people have substance abuse issues and mental illness. I think in this day and age, why take a chance? Anyone walking through our playground is scary.”
Leavitt said another parent brought up the idea that the daily meal service might be small now, but it could be expanded and that the facility may become a homeless shelter in a few years.
Bob McMillan, who has sat on the board of Bread for Life for eight years, said the number of people served daily hasn’t budged beyond 15 to 20 people during his term, which included the most recent recession.
Denorfia said there is no possibility the center could ever become a homeless shelter.
“The parcel is not large enough and zoning would not permit it,” Denorfia said. “It’s in a business zone. You can’t have people sleeping there.”
Denorfia said he’s not opposed to adding fencing along the property line with Derynoski to the plans if it helps address parents’s concerns.
Capt. Israel Gonzalez of the Meriden Salvation Army said that Leavitt might be right about homeless people having higher percentages of mental health and substance abuse issues. But that never interfered with the operation of the Salvation Army’s daycare center in Meriden next to the city’s homeless center. The day care center was fully gated.
“It was never a concern for us as far as safety went or parent complaints,” Gonzalez said. “But the people who used our center were low income and they are used to seeing homeless people coming and going. It’s not going to surprise them as opposed to (people) in other towns.”
Meriden’s YMCA also operates a child care center on Crown Street directly behind the Meriden homeless shelter. There is a 30-foot retaining wall between the properties and fencing around the day care center.
“We have never had an issue with the area in general,” said Y Executive Director John Benigni. “If anything, we’ve been neighborly. It’s never been adversarial nor have their clientele invaded our space. Like anything else there needs to be security measures.”
Southington has no homeless shelter and its lack of public transportation makes the likelihood of homeless people coming to the center from out of town unlikely.
A Southington police spokesman said the department had responded to one call at 76 Main St. address in the last three years for a verbal dispute. But because the address is shared with another business and a municipal lot, it’s hard to pinpoint where the call came from.
The Bread for Life meal center also has a residency requirement. Every new client must fill out a form proving residency and financial need. Once approved, there is a daily sign-in sheet. There is no smoking in the hall or outside on the grounds. When the meal ends, the clients depart. Some arrive and leave in cars, others walk. Some spend the day at the Southington Public Library, which makes the new proposed downtown location next to Derynoski ideal, McMillan said, since it’s across the street from the library. Volunteers from 10 of the town’s churches take turns working in the kitchen.
Bread for Life’s Executive Director Eldon Hafford addressed the concerns about the proximity of the proposed building to Derynoski School.
“We have a tremendous relationship with the Southington School System, including recently launching the successful breakfast program,” Hafford wrote in a press release. “We are very open to a dialogue with those who have concerns.”
Hafford also noted that the current meal operation is only one-quarter mile from Derynoski.
“Bread for Life clients are our Southington neighbors, friends and family,” Hafford said. “They are just like us but in need of a good meal.”