First day of below-freezing temperatures during pandemic leave warming centers worried

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Temperatures are dipping below freezing for the first time this year, and for the homeless community, having somewhere warm to shelter is crucial to staying healthy this winter. However, many warming centers, many of which are hosted by small churches, are having to make adjustments because of the pandemic.

“You know, I don’t know what we’re going to do. We don’t. And it hurts my heart,” Reverend Sherry Birney said.

Birney has hosted a warming center at the Grateful Life Community Church in Huntsville for five years, but with COVID-19 regulations encouraging social distancing and small indoor gatherings, she says the space is not big enough to safely open this year.

“We kept hoping that things would get better but they haven’t, and our space doesn’t provide the ability to keep people socially distanced, I think we could get seven people, maybe,” she said.

Sergeant Grady Thigpen, with the Huntsville police department, works with the homeless community daily. He has been working with the city to find a way to make up for some warming centers closing, but as temperatures drop quickly, time is running out.

“It does concern me but rest assured, our community will take care of one another, Sergeant Thigpen said.

HPD and Huntsville Public Transit will continue offering free rides all winter, taking homeless to warm hosts like Downtown Rescue Mission, which HPD has worked with to get ready for the influx.

“So if those numbers do increase they do have an overflow facility that we can house other folks in as well, so that is something we are prepared to do,” Sergeant Thigpen said.

The Salvation Army says it’s committed to keeping its space open as well. It opened its cafeteria-turned-warming center for the first time Monday to hold half of the normal 120 people. It is open from 8 am to 6:00 p.m., but after that, anyone needing shelter overnight has to wait on availability.

“We’re running every other bed. It’s 19 men and 11 women,” Salvation Army Social Services Program Director Kevin Free said. “At check-in at night, we have been having to turn some away, just a few beds. It’s unfortunate we don’t have space for everyone because of COVID.”

Reverend Birney said they’re not finished trying. They’re working with nonprofits in the area to network and hopefully find a larger building. Meanwhile, she said they have cots and food ready to go, and will continue networking in hopes of finding a larger space.

“Listen, I’ve lived 75 years, I’m not about to give up. We will never give up,” Birney said.

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