An Allison Hill-based halfway house is hoping to locate to downtown Harrisburg, proposing to convert an historic mansion to a 40-bed facility for recovering substance abusers.
Daystar Center for Spiritual Recovery held a community meeting on Wednesday night to outline its plans for 123 Forster St., a facility that would house as many as 40 men taking part in its residential treatment program.
Executive Director Fern Wilcox addressed about 30 neighbors, attempting to ease anxiety over issues such as safety, trash and loitering.
“We do what we need to do to always be a positive force in the community,” she told the room of concerned residents.
Daystar, a faith-based recovery program of the United Methodist Church, currently runs a 25-bed residential treatment facility from three attached townhouses on the 100-block of N. 18th Street. However, growing demand for its publicly funded services exceeds it ability to provide them from its current location, according to the organization.
“There’s enough of a need that there needs to be more beds, and Daystar is there to fit that need,” said Jeffrey McCombie, Daystar’s attorney.
The circa-1930 building was built as a private residence on Front Street, gaining some notoriety in the 1950s, when it was moved about 100 feet to its current location as Forster Street was widened. It now backs up to the parking lot of the East Shore YMCA.
Most recently, it housed Justice Works Youth Care, as well as offices for the Harrisburg-area YMCA, with an apartment on the top floor. The current owner, Pittsburgh-based HEIT Holdings, bought it in 2014 and now has it on the market for $675,000.
Daystar wishes to buy the 11,690-square-foot building and undertake a six-month renovation to turn it into a residential treatment center. However, the sale is contingent on zoning approval from the city.
To that point, Daystar and the city’s Planning Bureau currently disagree over the zoning status of the Forster Street building. Daystar believes it should be able to operate its facility there by right, with no additional zoning approval needed. Therefore, it’s appealing the bureau’s decision that requires it to obtain a variance in order to open.
At Wednesday’s meeting, residents did not question the need for Daystar’s services, given the opioid epidemic. But many expressed worry about the facility’s possible impact on the neighborhood. These concerns ranged from potential increases in crime to men congregating and smoking outside, especially since the building is fully exposed on three sides and has no yard space.
Daystar representatives attempted to ease these worries, saying that their clients are fully screened, closely supervised and choose to be in the program. Clients also must hold down jobs and demonstrate a desire to improve their lives, Daystar said.
“Our clients work in the community,” said Ronald Sloane, the program director for spiritual recovery. “We help clients integrate back into society after treatment.”
Nonetheless, several residents raised questions after Wilcox mentioned that the Allison Hill facility has had problems with drug dealers targeting clients.
“We are inundated on Allison Hill,” she said. “They cannot walk one block without being asked for drugs.”
Wilcox said that she hoped that the new facility would prove to be a safer environment, but some residents feared that the drug dealers might follow Daystar, exacerbating an existing problem downtown.
“I’m not supportive,” Jeremiah Chamberlin, who owns an apartment building and lives nearby, said following the meeting. “I don’t that believe that the neighborhood has the resources to deal with it.”
Wilcox told residents that there have been very few problems at the Allison Hill facility, and a check of police records seemed to bear that out. According to a city police source, there have been just a few calls to the facility over the past two years, “none serious.”
For many years, Marsha Banks has run her nonprofit, Amiracle4sure, directly across the street from Daystar’s Allison Hill facility. She said that she has experienced no major problems with Daystar, with the possible exception of men, including staff members, frequently gathering outside to smoke.
“Back in the day, they used to have better supervision,” she said. “But, for the most part, I feel they’ve had a good impression on the neighborhood.”
That said—she believes Daystar residents could be more active, and once were, in offering to help around the neighborhood.
“The old administration used to run a tighter ship,” she said.
In addition to a safer environment, Daystar wants to move downtown because of better proximity to public transportation, as residents don’t have cars, and, especially, to jobs, said staff members.
“They’re here because they want to change their lives,” Sloane said. “Our level of care offers them a chance to come here and develop life skills so they cannot be a burden on society.”
Daystar is scheduled to appear before the Harrisburg Planning Commission on May 2 and the Zoning Hearing Board on May 9, in city hall. Learn more about Daystar at www.daystarrecovery.com.
Disclosure: Lawrance Binda, TheBurg’s editor-in-chief and article author, lives near the proposed facility.