Preble Street planning to move teen shelter

More nights than not, teenagers looking for a place to sleep are turned away from Preble Street’s Lighthouse teen shelter.

The teen facility, on Elm Street, can sleep 16 people. But because of limitations with the existing shelter layout, and rules requiring people of different ages and genders to be separated, some kids get turned away even when beds are open, says Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street Resource Center.

That situation could change as soon as next summer.

The nonprofit is looking to buy a building at 38 Preble St. and convert it into the new teen shelter. The three-story building, formerly home to Dragon Products Co., is mostly vacant and has been for sale for some time. Preble Street entered into a contract to buy the building two weeks ago for an undisclosed price.

As proposed, the teen shelter would occupy the first two floors of the building, while the third floor would be reserved for offices and staff space.

Swann says the new space will have a better layout, more space, and more programming and services aimed at homeless people between the age of 12 and 21. It will also be located further from the city-run adult shelter on Oxford Street and offer better accomodations for gay, bisexual and transgender teens.

“In this new building, we are trying to do 24 beds, instead of 16,” he said. “And we will have a greater amount of flexibility, so we don’t have to turn any of the young people away who don’t have a place to sleep.”

Preble Street has been looking for a new home for the teen shelter for the last nine months, after the landlord at its current space at 65 Elm St. discovered serious problems with that building’s foundation. Even so, Swann says the agency has long known that it would need to find a more permanent space.

“We’ve been running the shelter since 2004, and prior to that, the Salvation Army ran it,” said Swann, adding, "it’s a pretty limited space, not just in terms of size … but it was never built to be a shelter.”

Still, a number of hoops must be cleared before the new facility can open. First, Preble Street must get city approval to run a shelter there, which could require a zoning change in addition to planning board approval. Secondly, Preble Street needs to raise upwards of $3.5 million in private donations.

Swann says about $1.8 million of those funds would go toward buying and renovating the building into a shelter. The remaining $1.7 million would be put toward hiring new staff to manage the larger space and to align the opening of the Teen Center facility with the closing of the teen shelter. Currently, the teen center is open noon until 8 p.m. and the shelter is open 8 p.m. until 8 a.m.

Alex Landry, head of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said Swann presented his plan for moving the shelter during the group’s Tuesday meeting. For now, he said the association’s board has not taken a position on the plan.

“It does look like it will have some benefits for the teens who stay there, so that looks good,” Landry said. “But we didn’t really have too much dialogue on it because it was so preliminary.”

Landry declined to share his personal opinion on the project, adding that he saw pluses and minuses to the move.

Preble Street is aiming to open the new shelter by July 1, 2012.