Thick socks, individual packages with cereal, peanut butter, and tissues. Protein bars, jars of instant coffee, and lots of warmth and goodwill.
Those are being gathered at Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in anticipation of Monday night launch of Hamden’s first-ever winter “warming center” — a tentative first step toward helping to tackle a regional homelessness challenge primarily shouldered by New Haven.
Warmth and goodwill were already on hand along with the supplies being gathered at Grace & St. Peter’s, across from the police headquarters near Dixwell and Whitney. The town has contracted with New Haven’s Columbus House to operate an overnight warming center there for the month of January so homeless people have a safe place to hang out.
The warming center will move in February to a different location,Hamden Plains United Methodist Church on Dixwell at Church Street. The town sees this as a two-month pilot. Depending on response, the town might add a third site in March.
Columbus House will provide staff and training for the warming center.
Alternative To Shelters
Warming centers are not the same as full-blown shelters. It doesn’t have cots or blankets; it’s not intended for people to sleep in (though they can curl up on the floor if they choose). The goal is to provide “clean, safe, indoor overnight services to protect those in need from harsh weather conditions,” as a town release put it.
The police are scheduled to make a twice-a-night pass through during the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift that the center is open, said Hamden Community Development Manager Adam Sendroff.
Hamden struck the deal with Columbus House to create the centers following a gathering in late October organized by Sendroff with his town’s department heads, then a unanimous vote of Hamden’s Legislative Council in December.
“Unlike a shelter, where when you’re in, you’re in, it [a warming center] is a low-barrier place,” said Columbus House CEO Alison Cunningham, whose organization has operated warming centers in the past in New Haven and continues to operate one in Middletown. Her organization is providing trained personnel, two each night, to staff the Hamden centers.
At shelters, people sign in and go to sleep and don’t leave until morning. They must follow fairly strict rules of conduct. So some chronically homeless people choose to brave the harsh winter nights outside instead. So the warming centers are designed, at heart, to save those lives.
The warming centers offer a place to get out of the cold, get a snack, a change of socks, some hot coffee, and camaraderie if wanted. People can come in and go out, stash their stuff, and return, although Sendroff said the longer-term hope is to connect these folks with services.
Neither Sendroff nor Cunningham could offer an estimate of the number of people expected to avail themselves of the service, although both said the number of homeless people in Hamden has increased in recent years.
“Chronic homeless is way down” overall in the region, especially among veterans and families, Cunningham said.
Hamden has authorized $23,000 for the pilot, primarily for staffing, and to pay additional utilities for the churches over the next two months of the service.
At least one listener questioned whether Hamden is doing enough to address its homelessness challenge, when the subject came up last week in a conversation with Legislative Council members Justin Farmer and Lauren Garrett on WNHH FM’s “Dateline” program. “Warming isn’t addressing homeless,” listener Sonya Mia Marie wrote in a comment posted to the show’s Facebook Live feed; she accused the town of “just shipping” people to New Haven. Garrett and Farmer called the warming centers a good first step, and agreed that the challenge requires more action, like providing more affordable housing.
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, Sendroff and Bergner, affectionately known as “Rev. Bob,” were expecting the Columbus House staff to arrive and help them configure the basement community room in the church, which will serve as the warming center.
The entryway will be off the in-driveway from Dixwell Avenue, on the east side of the building. Among other issues to be discussed with Columbus House staff are whether signs should be placed outside the church, and whether a hot breakfast might be provided in the morning before people are to leave.
Hamden has a nearly decade-long relationship with Columbus House, said Sendroff. Each year for the past nine Hamden has given a percentage of its community development block granting to Columbus House— approximately $7,145 a year — to pay for sheltering people from Hamden.
“They also have engagement and outreach teams” who come out to deal with encampments, as well as a number of people who were spending the nights at City Hall,” Sendroff said.
As the calls to Columbus House became more frequent, Sendroff brought together the principals in Hamden with the hope of addressing the problems in advance and in a more comprehensive way.
The warming center is a new chapter in the continuing relationship, said Sendroff. The two churches were chosen in part based on the advice of Columbus House. They are on bus routes. Also, they have been involved in Abraham’s Tent, a program in which houses of worship take turns sheltering homeless people for a week.
“I see this as Hamden being proactive,” said Sendroff. “I assess the community’s needs, and this is certainly one of them. The mayor and the department heads and the Legislative Council agree this is time to take this step.”
Cunningham, herself a Hamden resident, said that Hamden has done a lot to address homelessness. She cited Abraham’s Tent and several supportive housing sites in town. “This makes me feel proud. It’s a good thing to be doing for people deeply in need,” she said.
Those wishing to make donations of non-perishable, pre-wrapped items, as well as fruits such as apples, bananas, and clementines, instant cocoa and coffee (but no prepared foods) should be in touch with the Keefe Community Center at 11 Pine St. Financial contributions earmarked for the project should be directed to Columbus House.