This is the first winter for The Haven of Portage County homeless shelter, and dozens of homeless individuals and families now have a warm place to sleep at night.
But that doesn't eliminate the need for a warming center, which served the community for years before The Haven opened, because not everybody is able, or willing, to stay at a shelter.
So The Haven is now looking to open a separate warming center at its Ravenna Township facility — but more volunteers are needed to make that happen, Executive Director Anne Marie Noble said.
"There's more to helping the homeless than just opening up a shelter," Noble said.
The Haven opened its shelter in April after years of planning. Portage Community Chapel first purchased the site, a former retail shop at 2645 State Route 59 in Ravenna Township, in 2017. Noble joined the effort in 2018, and has been working since then to raise money and renovate the former store into a shelter, which can house up to 64 men and women.
A history of winter warming centers in Portage County
Noble said she opened Portage County's first and only warming center in 2015, years before she joined the effort to bring The Haven to Portage County. At that time, she was the director of The Center of Hope, a Ravenna social services agency that is part of Family and Community Services of Portage County.
In the years that followed, the warming center would change its location several times. In 2020, The Haven operated a warming site at the Immaculate Conception Church social hall on Spruce Street, and in 2021, The Center of Hope hosted the warming center at its West Main Street site.
Noble said about 10 or so people would stop into the Spruce Street church hall on any given night to visit the warming center, have a bite to eat, and then immediately go to sleep on cots set up in the building.
"They were tired," she recalled.
Background checks needed
Now that The Haven has opened a homeless shelter, about 25 or so people are staying there, approximately a third of the building's capacity. Right now, the group includes more women than men, including two women with children, which is the shelter's capacity for families.
It's because of those families and young children that all guests at The Haven must undergo background checks.
Noble said people with active warrants for their arrest can't stay there, nor can those who have been convicted of violent felonies or are registered sex offenders. If people have weapons with them when they enter, they are asked to secure them with staff until they check out; if they're not willing to do so, they can't stay.
A metal detector will soon be set up to ensure that nobody conceals a weapon. The machine also will check temperatures of all who enter, eliminating the need for manual temperature checks by staff.
"Safety is our number one goal," Noble said.
Miller Community House in Kent
Miller Community House, a shelter in Kent operated by Family and Community Services, also does background checks on its clients.
Jenn Matlack, director of housing for Family and Community Services, said people at that shelter are screened for things like violent crimes and sex offenses.
"People stay here for 30 days, and their stuff is still here," she said. "It becomes their home."
Miller House currently houses 23 people, including three families with 10 children between them, as well as singles. There is a waiting list for Miller, but people on the waiting list usually have another place they can stay in the interim.
Anne Face, associate director of Family and Community Services, said the agency still tries to find a way to help people who don't feel comfortable staying in shelters.
"We don't want anybody to die in the street," she said. "Having a place people can go is vital."
Homeless families at The Haven
Haven residents Sarah Wilkinson and Heidi Hubbard both said they find it to be a safe environment for their children.
Wilkinson and her son, Joseph, have been at The Haven for about a month. The boy recently celebrated his first birthday there.
After escaping a domestic violence situation, Wilkinson went to stay with family, but found that the "family dynamics" made it an unhealthy environment to raise her son.
"Family is family up to a point, but I want him to be around someone he can look up to," she said.
A month into her stay, Wilkinson has a housing voucher and an appointment with a therapist to help her address some of the things she's been through. She said she's grateful The Haven allows people to stay as long as they need to, as long as they're making progress on their goals.
"I'm so thankful for Anne Marie," she said.
Hubbard said she and her four youngest children, Isaiah, 11; Xavier, 10; Madison, 8; and Heidi, 5, have been at The Haven since October. She said it's been a long road for the family, which has faced trials such as its rental house being sold to a new owner who raised the rent, and a flare-up of her lupus, which caused her to lose her job at a day care center and forced her to drop out of college.
She's working an online job that's temporary, but it's one she hopes to make permanent, and plans to continue her education at Kent State University, hoping to earn a psychology degree and operate a drop-in center for at-risk youth. Hubbard has also identified a place for her family to live, and expects to move out of The Haven in about two weeks.
"I prayed for a job and stable housing, and I got everything I prayed for," she said. "Everything happens for a reason. In the end, it will all work out."
Other resources for homeless
Coleman Professional Services, a Kent-based nonprofit that offers residential, employment and other support, has several apartments for clients, plus staff members who reach out to the homeless population, said Chad Dye, chief officer of residential services.
In addition to working with homeless people who tend to congregate in downtown Ravenna, Erin Lemmon, Coleman's downtown outreach coordinator, works with The Haven residents to connect them with needed services.
"Many of these individuals may not actually be Coleman clients," Dye said.
Lemmon's role, he said, is to help them with things like housing vouchers and finding landlords willing to rent to them. Sometimes people are given a prepaid cellphone with minutes so they can access necessary services, he said.
Plans for a warming center
In addition to the shelters and services for homeless people in Portage County, Noble hopes to establish a warming center at The Haven. Because people who come to the warming center would not be subject to background checks, they'd only be allowed in the common areas of the facility.
Volunteers are needed to operate a warming center, however. Right now, the shelter only has enough volunteers for its daily operations, Noble said.
Those interested in volunteering for the warming center or for other positions at The Haven can go to the agency's website at www.portagehaven.org or call 330-235-8600.
Reporter Diane Smith can be reached at 330-298-1139 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Haven of Portage County opens shelter, but warming centers needed