Over the last few weeks, a coalition of community groups and city leaders in Rochester set up an impromptu warming center as a last-ditch effort to give homeless residents a safe place to go during the recent cold snap. With this week’s warmer weather, the center’s set to close at noon Thursday. But for many, the need for stable housing isn't going away.
Elizabeth Atwood works at SOS Recovery in Rochester, an organization that helps people dealing with addiction.
When the temperature dipped down below zero a few weeks ago and didn’t show signs of warming soon, she worried that some of their clients wouldn’t have a safe place to stay at night. There weren’t many shelters available nearby. So she started making calls.
“We had a nice couple who runs the food pantry at the church, and they ended up letting somebody sleep in the church for a night,” Atwood said. “And then the next morning it was like, alright, now we really need to do something about this.”
Within a few hours, Atwood connected with some other groups who had the same concern in mind. And soon, they were making the case to city leaders to open an overnight warming center.
“I was like, just give me the space. If you give me a space, we can do it,” Atwood said. “And like three and a half hours later we had nine people eating people eating pizza from Flatbread in Portsmouth. And it just started up like that quickly. I think the first night we had 19 people, and it’s just grown from there.”
Grown a lot. And before long, it seemed like the whole community was pitching in. The U.S. Army National Guard lent its armory to make sure there was enough space for everyone. Local restaurants donated food. Local social service groups stopped by to offer health screenings and other assistance.
Along the way, dozens of people stopped in – some for a few hours, others for a few weeks – for a warm meal, a warm shower and a safe place to sleep.
“We had a family of four that was here at the beginning, and they had some young children,” said Rochester Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Mark Close. “Then we have had, to our oldest is 81.”
He says people have come from across the region for all kinds of reasons, ranging from chronic homelessness to a broken furnace.
“We’ve had a probably day population of near 80,” Close said. “One night, I believe it was Friday or Saturday, when it was the coldest, it was 70.”
But today at noon, the shelter plans to close – at least for now. The National Guard needs its building back, and the weather’s warming up.
So that means people like D. Welch, who’s been staying there the last few weeks, will be back where they started.
“I’m going back to my tent, because I have to maintain it,” Welch says. “Every single thing I own is in that tent.”
Welch says he’s been homeless for years, but this is the first time he’s stayed in a shelter. He can usually take the cold, but 10 below was too much even for him.
“The volunteers here have been very good. The food’s been very good. No complaints,” he says. “We know it’s temporary. But where we stand now – there’s a lot of winter coming.”
That uncertainty was on the minds of a lot of people inside the Armory building Wednesday night. Wendy Bubier also wasn’t sure where she would end up – but at the very least, she felt like she made connections at the shelter that will put her on a more stable track.
“I was alone in my car by myself and isolated – I didn’t even know how to ask for help,” Bubier said. “Now, I’ve got to figure out which person to ask for what, but I have five different people I can ask. That’s the difference of coming together as people in a community.”
Close, the fire chief, said they’re trying their best – in the absence of a permanent solution – to stay in touch with people even after they leave.
“Even after today, they’ll receive notifications on who they can contact, who they can turn to, and it’s just not stopping here,” he said.
Still, the sheer number of people cycling through the warming center really brought home the severity of the region’s homelessness.
“People need help,” Close said. “And the state really needs to look at helping people. I know it’s all about money and budgeting – it’s been a challenge to help individuals to find places to go.”
That need isn’t going away, regardless of the weather.
“I’m worried and I’m interested to see where this goes,” Atwood said Wednesday night. “Even though the weather is survivable – it’s still cold, it’s still winter. We’ve still got four more months to go. And this is just the beginning of January and we’ve already seen a blizzard and extreme cold for 14 days. Who’s to say what’s going to happen the rest of the year.”