‘Someone just needed to do it’: Manna to open warming center for homeless at Episcopal Church

  • Kalia Richards, who lives at the Grove Street shelter, looks over what’s left of at least four tents that caught fire in a homeless camp near Pulaski Park in Northampton last weekend. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/5/2021 10:56:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As a pastor at Cathedral in the Night, Stephanie Smith has met people this winter who are homeless for the first time and was troubled that they had no place to go to keep warm in the pandemic, outside of Northampton’s two shelters.

“We do not have a warming center right now and that’s a real concern,” Smith said last week at a joint meeting of the City Council committees on City Services and Community Resources that focused on housing security.

“It’s one thing to be outside overnight. It’s a whole ’nother thing to be outside 24 hours a day,” Smith said.

With a snowstorm and freezing temperatures in recent days, there was no dedicated place for people without a home to go to warm up if they were not guests at the Grove Street Inn or the Interfaith Emergency Shelter, which was close to capacity but not full last weekend.

Starting next week, that will no longer be the case. Manna Community Kitchen is opening a warming center in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“We’re excited about it,” said Lee Anderson, Manna’s treasurer who also cooks meals. “We were always aware this was missing.”

Organizers are hoping to be open at least four days a week, Anderson said. The days and times may change.

“We don’t know — we’re going to have to see what the need is,” he said.

Although its focus is on food, “Manna has always operated as an impromptu warming center in the past,” Anderson said. In rainy or cold weather, guests could get out of the elements.

“When COVID hit and winter came around, the reality was, oh my god we don’t have that anymore. We can’t let our guests in,” Anderson said.

Last weekend, a fire caused by a propane heater destroyed a number of tents where people were staying under the South Street bridge.

“The fire was obviously a tragic event,” said Kate Cardoso, a Manna board member. “There’s been talk of the resilience hub, there’s been talk of the warming center. Someone just needed to do it. We at Manna decided we are just going to do it.”

The organization doesn’t have funding specifically for the project, but it does have enough money in the bank for it, Anderson said.

“If we wait until we have funding that’s made for this, it will be summer. Let’s just do this now and we will fundraise for it later,” Anderson said. “Basically what we just said is we’re going to do this and hope for the best. History tells us that Northampton takes care of us when we do the right thing, and this is not different.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church has been “incredibly supportive,” Lee said.

Manna has two staff members who will be at the center, Anderson said. “The effort is coming from a genuine place of wanting to meet an immediate and real need,” said Ahalya Raman, who will be working at the center.

The center plans to offer showers and laundry for people — along with a warm place to go. “That’s huge for unsheltered folks,” said Kali Baba McConnell, a certified recovery coach and harm reduction counselor who will be working at the shelter. “You can’t go to Forbes or all the other things people are used to.”

McConnell, who was houseless several years ago, said some people aren’t comfortable staying in a group shelter.

“It’s a traumatic experience to be at a homeless shelter. I did it myself … I’m a big dude, and it was traumatic,” he said.

In previous years, the city would host warming centers on particularly cold days.

“Typically when we’ve done them in the past we’ve done them because the shelters are generally closed during the daytime,” Mayor David Narkewicz said. “Generally we were trying to fill that gap of the shelters being closed during the day and people not being able to go back in.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, the shelters are open all day to guests. The Manna warming center plans to be open on opposite days of ServiceNet’s Northampton Resource Center, which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“People may stay as long as it takes to get their business done, but it is not a general warming center, per se,” Amy Timmins, a spokesperson for ServiceNet, wrote in an email in late December.

Manna is collecting monetary donations and supplies for the project. Needed are items including hygiene products of all kinds, such as travel-sized toothpaste and disposable razors, as well as books and games, Anderson said. She said the warming center will also likely have a couple of televisions, “so there’s something to do in this room.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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