Astoria Warming Center prepares for another season

·4 min read

Nov. 12—The Astoria Warming Center, a place that provides overnight shelter for homeless people during the months of wintry weather, plans to open for its eighth season on Monday.

Hours will run 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. As usual, supper will be served and showers will be on offer.

This will be the warming center's second season of having to work around the coronavirus. By this point, the crew and clientele have adjusted to a setting with masks, temperature checks, sleeping mats spaced 6 feet apart and other pandemic protocols.

The warming center is hoping gradually to bring back volunteer positions.

When COVID arrived, the center had to do away with most volunteers and move almost entirely to paid staff. This was partly to reduce the number of people coming in and out of the space — the basement of the First United Methodist Church at Franklin Avenue and 11th Street — and partly because the volunteer base skewed older, a demographic especially vulnerable to the virus.

On Sunday, the board of directors' meeting will be an open house, held virtually at 4 p.m., for anyone who wants to talk to board members about donating their time.

The board itself, which is all volunteer, is also looking to fill roles.

Billie Delaney, the warming center coordinator, said the organization is "at an evolving place with COVID. I don't think any of us can know where COVID will be a month into the season."

Right now, the organization is allowing volunteers to work in the kitchen. "Looking at what's going on right now, I think that's fairly safe," Delaney said. "And it's one person at a time; we're not having a whole crew of people coming in."

The warming center may try to design volunteer roles for people from both the housed and unhoused population — opportunities for people who use the emergency shelter to "feel more ownership of the space," Delaney said.

The center requires that all staff and volunteers be vaccinated against the coronavirus to protect workers and guests. "We're just trying to prioritize everybody's safety," Delaney said.

Last year, social distancing measures cut down the shelter's guest capacity to just under 30. Even with the reduction in beds, the center never maxed out, according to Teresa Barnes, the executive director.

The warming center is low-barrier: As long as someone can come in unassisted and isn't behaving unruly or experiencing a serious medical episode, that person can stay.

In the spring, the state passed a new law that removed some operational hurdles for homeless shelters. For the warming center, this eliminated the requirement that the shelter open only when the weather becomes dangerously cold or wet.

But, because the building lacks a commercial sprinkler system and needs other upgrades, the center is still limited to a total of 90 days between mid-November and mid-March.

So, even though the law gave the warming center more discretion about which nights to open, in practice it changed very little. For the most part, the center will open during nights of inclement weather.

"There's not nearly as much difference as I'd hoped there would be," Barnes said.

The law did change one thing. The warming center, which operates in a residential area, no longer needs the good-neighbor agreement, put in place in 2017 in response to complaints about noise, loitering, littering and other nuisances.

"That being said, we're still trying to be good neighbors," said Barnes, who lives nearby. "We're trying to be very thoughtful."

The warming center will monitor behavior as if the agreement is still in place, Danielle Hall, the board president, said. Quiet hours will be enforced, litter and pet waste will continue to be cleaned up, and people will have to be respectful of the neighbors.

Hall said people can reach out to her or Barnes if they want to raise concerns.

In a county with many hundreds of homeless people and few resources, it is difficult to come up with solutions that make everyone happy, Hall said. "But we are trying to come up with solutions to really protect people and give them some stability," she said.

It is hard, for example, for someone to hold down a job when they don't have a place to take a shower.

"These are just people. They are our fellow Astorians," she said. "And they deserve better than to sleep in a tent by the river."