Imagine with me for a moment: you are homeless. It is, of course, not what you would prefer, but it’s your reality, and has been for a few months. Your family and friends with homes have made it clear that their hospitality has run out, and you find yourself back on the streets. This has happened before, but you can see a problem approaching: the year is winding down, and the months are getting colder. How will you ever survive the below-freezing winter nights? Where can you go?
If this is your story and you find yourself in Moses Lake during the winter months, you have someplace to go: the Warming Center. Run by the Homeless Task Force of Grant County, the Warming Center completed its third operational winter at the end of February. According to Sheila Chilson, task force chair and CEO of Moses Lake Community Health Center, the purpose of the Warming Center is to “connect individuals with services, build relationships, and potentially change a life.” The center is open during December, January, and February, every evening from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. According to Chilson, this year the Warming Center served 185 unduplicated individuals, and the average guest stayed for 14 nights. Each night, the center hosted anywhere between 11 and 46 guests, varying night to night. The Warming Center serves as a warm, safe place to rest and get a simple meal. The room, this year hosted in the Youth Dynamics building downtown, is filled with recliners, toiletry items for guests, warm items like coats, sleeping bags, and gloves, and smiling faces of volunteers filling shifts all night long.
These volunteers and the relationships they built with the Warming Center guests were some of the greatest successes commonly cited by community members involved this year. “Ultimately, the goal, when we started this in 2015,” Chilson said, “was to be able to build relationship. To be able to help whoever was ready to make that step towards a difference in their life.” According to Chilson and others who shared their thoughts on the success of the Warming Center, this year was the best year yet for building those relationships. A large portion of that was credited to the center’s manager, Amber Meyer, whose paid role was added this year for the first time. The consistency of her presence and desire to know the guests made a substantial difference in the atmosphere each night. Meyer was joined by volunteers from over 12 churches this year, totalling just under 800. The pastor for students and families from Moses Lake Presbyterian, Matt Janosov, shared that the volunteers did immense good for the guests of the center. The guests were being addressed by name, he said, and being loved. This relationship gave dignity to the guests, as well as creating a safe, loving atmosphere.
In addition, community members shared the positive impact of two staff members from Grant Integrated Services, Gene and Josh, being present frequently during those months. Mental health issues and homelessness often going hand in hand; according to Disrupting Homelessness by Laura Stivers, there are times when mental health issues cause homelessness, and at other times vice versa. The involvement of Gene and Josh this winter led to more than 20 guests getting directly connected with mental health services according to their needs. This is a substantial and meaningful benefit that the Warming Center has not been able to offer in years past.
As for the roadblocks and challenges? The Warming Center certainly faced those this year, as well as each year previous. Finding a host facility has been difficult each year, and this year especially so. The Homeless Task Force searched for a location for quite some time before Youth Dynamics graciously stepped forward to offer their space, and the tight timeline caused some amount of stress and chaos, both for volunteers and for nearby business owners who were given very little notice. Filling the volunteer shifts has also been increasingly difficult, according to Chilson. Each year it becomes more challenging, especially the 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift. Lastly, the lack of continued shelter and support for our homeless community was a challenge faced by the Warming Center, especially by Meyer, the manager, who developed close relationships with guests throughout those three months. According to Meyer, guests would ask her, “Where do we go now?” when the open months were coming to a close. Meyer would have to tell them, tearfully, that she didn’t know. The repeated question and answer were heartbreaking to Meyer, and she wished she had more to offer these guests who had become her friends.
The Homeless Task Force plans to have a shelter again next year, and task force chair, Chilson, has a wish list for the winter of 2018-19. Her wishes are as follows: a nonprofit to work under, with administrative systems and policies with which to comply for staffing; a permanent host site, ideally donated; and another successful fundraising year in order to hire additional staff and lighten the load on volunteers and local churches. Chilson is optimistic in light of these wishes and extremely grateful for this year’s successes. She shared the blessing of local churches, both in providing many volunteers and in bringing wonderful food to the shelter. Chilson also emphasized the community’s generosity, saying, “Anytime we asked, we got what we needed.” Communication with the community is primarily done on Facebook; follow the Homeless Task Force of Grant County for updates throughout the year and opportunities for involvement in next year’s Warming Center.
Q: Doesn’t Serve Moses Lake run the Warming Center?
A: Serve Moses Lake partners with the Homeless Task Force; primarily our role is to provide materials for use by the center volunteers as well as for distribution to the guests who visit the center. Our director, Tim, serves on the Homeless Task Force, furthering our involvement in the Warming Center.
Q: If we have a shelter, won’t that increase our homeless population in Moses Lake?
A: The short answer is no. This year’s statistics from the Warming Center show 75% of guests to be from Grant County, and of those, the majority call Moses Lake their home. As for the other 25%, center manager, Amber Meyer, argued that the statistics are not completely accurate due to some confusion about the wording of the question. Meyer thinks even more are from this area.