By BRIAN BREHM The Winchester Star September 25, 2021
WINCHESTER — A 50-year-old building in southern Winchester that has served as a restaurant, comedy club and loan company is evolving again.
The 11,522-square-foot, single-story building with a partially finished basement at 2655 Valley Ave. is proposed to host a new emergency homeless shelter operated by the Winchester Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that already operates three shelters on North Cameron, East Clifford and East Southwerk streets.
"What I see here is a vision of the future," the mission's executive director, Brandan Thomas, said Friday morning during a tour of the vacant Valley Avenue structure located in front of ANS Inn and Suites. "This place gives us an opportunity down the road to really expand and grow."
Thomas said the need for emergency shelter in Winchester has increased dramatically in recent months.
"In May, it wasn't that bad," he said about the demand for beds at the mission's three existing shelters. "Toward the end of June and into July, it's almost like the wheels came off. ... The numbers that we're dealing with now are insane."
The mission's shelter for men on North Cameron Street, which also serves as the organization's headquarters, has 32 beds. Its women's shelters on East Clifford and East Southwerk streets have an additional 21 beds.
"Right now, we're way above capacity," Thomas said. "It is overwhelming because we don't have the space, and when you put too many people in a confined space, conflict arises because it's overwhelming for them."
Thomas said 90% of the mission's current shelter residents have a diagnosed mental illness.
"There are no hospital beds for them," Thomas said, referring to Virginia's decision earlier this year to stop accepting new admissions at five of its eight state psychiatric institutions, including a hospital in Staunton that serves the Northern Shenandoah Valley. "The local hospital [Winchester Medical Center] is consistently sending people to us. That's not a slight on the hospital — they're overwhelmed because of the [COVID-19] pandemic."
The new shelter proposed for Valley Avenue would add dozens of beds for the area's homeless as well as outreach services including health care and job training. Details are still being sorted, but other planned amenities include a day shelter where clients can stay warm and dry during inclement weather, shared rest rooms, a shared kitchen, community rooms, a dining area and an office for staff.
Thomas said the Valley Avenue building, despite its age and diverse previous uses, "has good bones" and even greater potential. For example, since it used to be a restaurant, it has all the wiring and connections needed to install a commercial-grade kitchen including a walk-in freezer and refrigerator.
There will also be more room for clients to spread out. "It's a little under twice the size of our current facility [on North Cameron Street]," Thomas said.
Mission officials are currently raising the $1.3 million needed to buy the Valley Avenue building and the 1.9 acres on which it stands. The property's value is assessed by the Winchester Commissioner of the Revenue's Office at $1,480,400.
Thomas said his goal is to open the mission's new Valley Avenue shelter by the time this winter's WATTS (Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter) program closes for the season in mid-March. In order for that to occur, Winchester has to update City Code with an amendment that would allow a homeless shelter to operate in the Highway Commercial (B-2) zoning district at 2655 Valley Ave. The proposed amendment was introduced to the Winchester Planning Commission earlier this week, and City Council is expected to vote on it later this year.
"This has to happen," Thomas said. "There are people on the streets and something has to happen."
For more information about Winchester Rescue Mission, visit winrescue.org.