Warming center eases homeless shelter congestion in first winter

BY MELINA BOURDEAU
THE RECORDER
FEBRUARY 7TH, 2020
GREENFIELD — Although the groundhog may have predicted an early spring, cold overnight temperatures will continue. Until spring is here, however, people who need a place to stay overnight to escape the elements have a place to go — the warming center at Chapman Street’s Salvation Army.

The warming center is jointly operated by the Salvation Army and ServiceNet, a regional nonprofit that runs the county’s only homeless shelter for individuals, located on Wells Street.

Last year, the state Department of Housing and Community Development committed $150,000 to pay for the warming center, which opened Nov. 1 and will close May 1. The bulk of the funding is used for staffing, facilities costs and food, according to ServiceNet’s Vice President of Community Relations Amy Timmins.

The warming center’s site manager, Becky Poirier, spoke about the season so far. There are three people who split shifts to oversee the center and its inhabitants.

“In the start, there were small numbers, three to seven people, then up to 13 people,” Poirier said. “Until about four weeks ago, there was like an explosion. Now there’s about 20 people a night. It could be overflow from Northampton or Amherst. It’s been so cold, people need to go inside.”

About 15 people come to the warming center consistently, Poirier said, and no one is turned away. People using the center generally range in age from 20 to 64.

Starting at 7 p.m., people can arrive at the room, which has chairs. They can stay there until about 7 a.m. when other activities and meals begin at the Salvation Army.

“At first, people would stay up and talk, but now, maybe because they feel safe, they’re falling asleep around 8:30 or 9 p.m.,” Poirier said.

Meals are also provided by volunteers during the week through Amy Clark, who used to run the community meals program, Timmins said.

“When we don’t have prepared meals, we can make cup of soups, sandwiches, canned food. We can’t cook but we can warm things up,” Poirier said. “I brought in chocolate syrup (to make chocolate milk) and one man, who is 20, really enjoyed that.”

Because it is a state-funded, ServiceNet-run program within the Salvation Army, all three entities will be evaluating what makes the most sense for next winter, according to Timmins.

“The hope is to be able to shelter people through the winter months. The shape of that is yet to take place,” Timmins said. “Sitting in a warming center is better than outside, and having a bed (in a shelter) is preferable than that. They’ll look at usage, staff response and response from people who used it.”

Around this time last year, Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler, 51, and Kathleen Grady, 50, died of carbon monoxide poisoning and possible hypothermia, when they camped in a tent behind the McDonald’s on the Mohawk Trail.

Following their deaths, the Wells Street shelter opened its doors to anyone in need, resulting in the modest, one-floor facility becoming overcrowded. To help house the homeless in the aftermath, The Interfaith Council spent $5,000 to place people in local hotels, Greenfield Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams said.

“People are coming here because the shelter is full,” Timmins said.

“Two people have been placed into apartments from here,” Poirier added. “One man told us he was in the woods for five years.”

The idea for the center emerged at a meeting in 2019 at Community Action’s office in Greenfield with state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, according to Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet’s senior vice president of shelter and housing, vocational and addiction services. While Comerford said she was pleased with the funding, she conceded that a warming center is only a “piece of the puzzle” in efforts to reduce and eliminate homelessness in Franklin County. She said the state must be “held accountable” on the issue of homelessness.

“We know that in order to make homelessness non-occurring, infrequent and brief, the state needs to step up and look at affordable housing” Comerford said.

The warming center’s opening has effectively eased congestion in the shelter.

“We had periods of overcrowding that were difficult, so having two spaces instead of one made a significant difference,” Timmins said. “The capacity at the warming center is a bit flexible. It’s a big plus to have a second place to go into.”

There are opportunities for people to volunteer or donate items to the center, Poirier said. People donating blankets and pillows can bring them to the resource center at 60 Wells St., or call 413-587-7555 and leave a message for the warming center.

“It would be great for people to come to play the acoustic guitar or sing,” Poirier added. “We could also use people for the meals team, too. As far as donations, we could use sleeping bags — it’s the best solution right now — or travel pillows.”

Reach Melina Bourdeau at mbourdeau@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.

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