WWC 101: What’s going on with the Winter Warming Center?
(This is part one in a 3-part blog about Springfield’s seasonal homeless shelter. Part 1 examines what the WWC currently is and who uses it; Part 2 talks about how it’s funded and how our clients’ needs are changing; Part 3 will discuss challenges facing the WWC and why we believe a better option must be created now.)
On April 1, the Winter Warming Center (WWC) closed for the season. This shelter, which has run from November through March for more than 10 years, has also been called the “Overflow” and “SOS” shelter throughout its history. A few different organizations, including Salvation Army and Helping Hands, have operated it. It also has been in several different places around downtown Springfield.
The building we most recently have been in is at 1015 E. Madison. Although we are fortunate to have been able to use it, the structure is not designed for use as a shelter. The fire department set our capacity at 54 people per night and Helping Hands supports this amount. On nights of severe cold, we have admitted additional people who can sit in the common room. However, we must weigh the risks of over-capacity against the risks of being outdoors. If a need to evacuate quickly emerged, a tragedy would happen if we went over fire code and couldn’t get everyone out in time. Therefore, when temperatures are not dangerously cold we must limit the amount of people in the building.
The WWC is a “meal and mat” operation. It was created to provide emergency shelter to people in the winter so they do not freeze to death on the streets. People who come to the shelter receive a mat for the evening and a meal – thanks to hundreds of volunteer meal-providers each year. For this purpose it has been successful and those who have funded, staffed, and volunteered there over the years deserve the credit.
The WWC uses a low-barrier approach, which is a strength of our operations. Low-barrier means we try to make it as easy as possible to use the shelter. We accept adult men and women, we do not require sobriety, and we ask people to leave for only three reasons: physical violence or credible threat of; destruction/theft of property; and using drugs/alcohol/tobacco in the building.
Sometimes we do ask people to leave and not return for the season; but we making “banning” a last resort. We don’t want to ask people to leave our shelter. However, our priority is to create a safe environment for all clients. If a person threatens the safety of others, we may not be able to offer shelter to him or her.
Who uses the WWC?
Most of the clients who use the WWC are not able to access other shelters in Springfield or they do not want to for a lot of different reasons.
When the WWC closes for the season the clients often return to staying on the streets or they may go to encampments in various places. Most of them are among the population of people experiencing homelessness that we refer to as “chronically homeless” and “unsheltered.” Many of them have unmet health needs and live with substance use disorders. In short, they are the people who need the help the most but often struggle to access resources.
Here are some demographic breakdowns of the population who used the WWC from November 2018-March 2019:
· 357 individuals used the shelter (77% men and 23% women)
· 29% of clients are over the age of 50
· 68% of clients self-reported a disability
· 71% of clients stayed fewer than 30 days
· 4% of clients stayed longer than three months
The numbers become more relevant when you compare them to previous years. For example, just two seasons ago (2016-2017), women made up only 4% of the WWC population. We’re also seeing steady increases in the amount of people who self-report a mental or physical disability, and each year we have more senior citizens who need emergency shelter. The numbers tell us our population is changing and so are their needs to become permanently housed in a safe environment.
In Part 2 of this blog – to be released later this week – we will discuss how the WWC is currently funded and how the changing needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness require us to change how we deliver services. While the WWC has worked in the past, for an increasing amount of people the model is not working any more.
Emergency shelter must be effective and sustainable. Our community has the resources, the caring, and the support to do much good for everyone. The question now for emergency shelter in Springfield is: How do we evolve what has been a successful endeavor into one that meets today’s needs?