A new Warming Center will help keep up to 60 homeless individuals safe from the ravages of the pandemic and the equally threatening below-freezing winds of this winter.
“We knew we had to do something different this year,” said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, Chief Executive Officer of the Rescue Mission of Trenton. “Traditionally, to keep warm, those who are experiencing homelessness would come to The Mission and stay in our Center for a meal, spend the day and/or night, and possibly receive counseling; or they would go to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, where they could eat, then linger and have staff and volunteers provide services.”
She added, “However, neither The Mission nor the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen will be able to safely accommodate the number of individuals that we have in previous winters because of the need for social distancing in response to this pandemic. Still, we know that there will be at least as many individuals experiencing homelessness this year as last. Probably more.”
According to the Point-In-Time Count of the Homeless, which was done on January 28, 2020, Mercer County had 556 homeless individuals, with 105 of them being unsheltered. “Behind each of those numbers is a personal story,” Abbott-Young added. “And that, of course, was before the onslaught of the pandemic and our current economic crisis.”
The Mission can now only host 50 people in the Day Center, as opposed to the 80 individuals who could stay pre-COVID. And at night, while there are separate rooms for 23 of the most vulnerable individuals who stay at The Mission, there is only space for 75 additional individuals to stay; whereas there was room for up to 200 individuals to spend the night pre-COVID. Meanwhile, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), while now preparing twice as many emergency meals as before the pandemic, has switched from sit-down dining to serving meals to-go from their front doors.
“Since we have always been such strong collaborators,” Joyce Campbell, Executive Director of TASK, said, “The Mission’s executive team and ours began discussions in earnest this summer in preparation for what we knew was inevitably around the corner. Together, we gained strength. And created possibilities. Fortunately, The Mission has the space, and we have the food. We knew the need. We just had to start planning. And hope to find the funding.”
A large portion of that funding came from the Princeton Area Community Foundation COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund. Further funding has come from individual donations, with the remainder promised through partnerships with the County.
“This project started with recognizing the essential need. Then, by collaborating, we were able to create a solution. Still, of course, it is only occurring because of the compassion and generosity of our community,” added Abbott-Young.
Because of that compassion and generosity, individuals who request entry to the Warming Center will be greeted to a warm, safe haven, where they will receive a meal, companionship, and referral services, possibly leading to permanent supportive housing.
The Warming Center will be open 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, until April 10th. It will be housed at The Mission (100 Carroll Street), utilizing a 4,000 square-foot portion of the existing Thrift Store. (The store size and operations will be reduced during these months.) The Center will be staffed with two shelter associates for each eight-hour shift, three shifts a day, and a part-time meal assistant. The Center will also require the addition of two single regular bathrooms and one handicapped bathroom, some minor renovations and furnishing, as well as safety shields and items needed to maintain social distancing.
Campbell added, “We view this Warming Center as a place that affirms our unwavering belief in the dignity of everyone we serve, and our belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.”
“The city has never had a Warming Center before,” said Marygrace Billek, Director of the Department of Human Services for the County of Mercer. “The Mission and TASK each bring something special to our community. And when they come together, it becomes even more powerful. The way they have risen to the challenges presented by this pandemic is truly inspiring. Those challenges are our community’s challenges. And our community is responding with what is needed – which is a collective solution.”
What will success for this Warming Center look like at the end of this long winter?
“We will know we are successful by an increase in the number of clients we serve, by a lack of reports of frostbite or death, by the number of meals we serve and clothing we provide, and, ultimately, the number of individuals who we can help obtain permanent housing,” said Abbott-Young.