Stepping through the security door at the former Franklin Square convent of St. Catherine of Sienna, visitors would never suppose from the peaceful atmosphere and immaculate surroundings that they were entering a hotbed of controversy. But neither hardwood floors, crystal chandeliers nor baskets of fresh snacks are sufficient to divert attention from the ongoing legal wrangle between the shelter’s current leaseholder, Broken But Not Destroyed Corp.; the shelter’s ultimate landlord, the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre; and members of the local community and the parish of St. Catherine’s.
The saga began in June 2017, when the parish invited Mary Joesten, of the Faith Mission Outreach Center and the Pope Francis Hospitality Center in Elmont, to convert the former Dominican convent into a facility for emergency housing. Joesten, in turn, contacted BBND’s director, Kayde Austin-Thompson, and asked if her organization would be interested in operating the property.
BBND operated three shelters that provided permanent housing under contract with the state through Nassau County. “We established our first shelter in 2013,” Austin-Thompson said. “We didn’t have the resources for four shelters, but since we’d just closed our facility on Angevine Avenue, we were able to take on a new one.” BBND began discussions with the diocese and Monsignor Richard Figliozzi, pastor of St. Catherine’s and administrator of the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Elmont, where the Pope Francis Center is located.
After viewing the property, Austin-Thompson decided it was a good fit for her organization, and a lease was signed. Her husband’s company, D & A Construction, was tasked with the extensive renovations.
“I understand why some people don’t like shelters in their community,” Austin-Thompson said. “A lot of shelter operators are only interested in the money, and they aren’t always good neighbors.”
Austin-Thompson and the BBND board decided from the outset that their shelters would be different. The entire facility at St. Catherine’s is spotlessly clean and features common rooms that are bright, airy and comfortable. The community room on the second floor has new toys for children, as well as a large flat-screen television and several work stations where residents can work on resumes, receive training or research employment and housing opportunities.
Despite the substantial upgrades, though, pushback from the local community was so energetic that by last September, “Monsignor [Figliozzi] advised us to let it go,” Austin-Thompson said. To allay concerns, BBND invited members of the community and officials from the Town of Hempstead to tour the facility.
“We didn’t have to let them in,” Austin-Thompson said. “We’re licensed by the state and have state permits. We don’t need permits from the town, because we’re covered by the same permits and zoning variances that the convent had. But we wanted them to be comfortable, to see that everything was safe.”
The facility has a maximum capacity of 16 single mothers and their children. An additional three rooms have been set aside for displaced families — those whose need is immediate and who, unlike the facility’s other residents, have not yet been referred by the Department of Social Services. Last week, the shelter was about two-thirds full, with no displaced families.
Residents may stay for a total of 21 nights, and must renew their placement every two or three days, according to Austin-Thompson. Those who work must contribute to the facility’s upkeep, and school-age children continue in the schools they attended before moving into the shelter, she said. No men live at the shelter, although BBND employs some male staff.
Disputes among the diocese, the parish and the town have continued. Despite BBND’s contention that the shelter required no new certifications or permits, the town issued a number of violations, including overcrowding and improper certificates of occupancy, and in a letter dated May 1, the diocese sought to void its lease agreement because of the disputes with the town. In an April 30 ruling, however, Nassau Supreme Court Justice Leonard Steinman ruled in BBND’s favor and finally opened the way for residents to begin moving in. Last month, a mediator again found in BBND’s favor, with the caveat that the organization must either come to an accommodation with the town or countersue to resolve the issues between the two sides. The town and BBND are due in court again next month.
Town officials have contended that the shelter’s bedrooms are too small to accommodate more than one person. At issue is whether vestibules containing sinks are part of the rooms or not. The town claims they are not. State inspectors have termed the town’s claim “ridiculous,” according to a letter Austin-Thompson showed to the Herald. Independent architects and inspectors hired by BBND further determined that the dual-occupancy rooms, including the vestibules, measured 106.3 square feet — well in excess of the 100-square-foot requirement.
Calls to the town attorney and the diocese requesting comment were not returned by press time.
BBND’s shelters are supported by the modest fees of about $400 per month per resident, paid by the state. And Austin-Thompson keeps close tabs on the facility. For example, she receives daily reports on the menus for breakfast and dinner, including photos of the meals. And reidents must return in time for the shelter’s 7 p.m. curfew. Drugs and alcohol
are strictly forbidden, as are visits from outsiders.
It was unclear how the church would use the property if it were successful in terminating its lease with BBND. According to Austin-Thompson, the property could be used to house seniors in the parish.
Austin-Thompson remained sanguine about her relationship with the town and the parish, seeing resistance as normal. “Anytime a person tries to do good, they’re going to be confronted by obstacles,” she said, adding that those obstacles have been her greatest teachers. A deeply devout woman, she sees her work as a vocation, and summed up her efforts by citing a passage from Proverbs: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and the Lord will pay back what has been given.”