Offical: Church would need major upgrades to be used as shelter

South Congregational Church wants to serve as shelter for undocumented immigrants fearing deportation

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Springfield’s building commissioner says that it is possible that a downtown church could be converted into a shelter for undocumented immigrants, but that it would require major renovations to the building and a special permit from the City Council.

Following an earlier meeting between the two, Commissioner Steve Desilets wrote a letter to Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer of the South Congregational Church on Friday, providing an outline of what would be needed to use the building as a shelter.

Gerstenlauer has proposed using his Maple Street church as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants who are in fear of being deported. He told 22News on Monday that doing so would be in keeping with the congregation’s faith values.

Gerstenlauer says that the Department of Homeland Security considers houses of worship to be sensitive locations, therefore federal agents would be less likely to go there seeking out individuals for deportation.

Mayor Domenic Sarno, however, has come out against the idea, saying that the City will not stand for “the harboring and protecting of illegal and/or criminal activities at this site.”

In his letter, Desilets told Gerstenlauer that there are very strict rules when it comes to using a church for a residential shelter. He noted that state law does allow church buildings to be used as emergency shelter, but this can only happen for a period of seven days at a time, and only when there is extremely cold weather, or the governor has declared a state of emergency.

In order to become a more permanent shelter, the church would have to install fire sprinklers, bring all of its plumbing and electrical systems into code compliance, and make the building fully handicapped-accessible. Further, there would have to be enough bathrooms and showers to accommodate whatever number of immigrants they would wish to house, and if they intend to serve food there, there would have to be a separate food safety inspection and certification.

Additionally, Desilets says, turning the church into a shelter would require special zoning approval from the City Council.

“As I have advised you, there are serious health and safety concerns involved in the operation of any type of congregate living arrangement in a building that was not built for such use, and we all want to assure the public safety. It is my understanding based upon our conversation that you are not currently housing anyone, and that you will not do so unless and until the property is in compliance with all applicable laws, statutes, codes, and ordinances,” Desilets wrote.

The proposal to use the South Congregational Church as a shelter was announced last Friday by faith leaders from that church and five other congregations, as well as the Pioneer Valley Project.

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