New Life warming center staying active during cold spell

Jan. 18—Even those with comfortable homes can have a hard time keeping warm in the bitter cold temperatures that the area is seeing this past week. But what about those who have no where else to go?

New Life Church's warming center has been staying especially busy in the midst of the recent cold spell. In October, it looked like that might not be an option; the Ferguson-based church's gymnasium used as a warming center is at other times a place for children to engage in church-related activities, and various forms of harmful items and drug paraphernalia have been found following the center's utilization in cold weather. As such, plans to continue operating the warming center at New Life looked to be discontinued for this winter.

But significant community discussion about the need for a warming center — and the lack of ability to find a suitable alternative in a timely fashion — contributed to New Life reopening the facility for emergencies in December. That's exactly what mid-January has brought to Pulaski County, with temperatures going below zero, presenting a potentially fatal situation for anyone sleeping outdoors, such as the community's unhoused population.

Nicole Walden, wife of New Life pastor Douglas Walden and a key figure in operating the warming center, said things have gone well this week.

"We've had good support from the community," she said. "The county is helping us with funding for volunteers and supplies and stuff like that, and the city is helping with utilities, so that's a huge help with having to run it in these freezing cold temperatures."

The warming center has seen about 14 people a night on average, noted Walden, and thus far there haven't been any problems concerning the kind of dangerous items found previously.

"We have some volunteers that have come on church nights or the morning of (church) to do a walk-through, a sweep-through," she said. "So far, nothing like that has been found."

She noted that one person who was warned multiple times about drinking alcohol in the warming center had to be put out one night for not obeying the rules, but even that was before the super cold temperatures swept in this week.

The warming center opens whenever temperatures reach 32 degrees or below, and is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Individuals there are served dinner and breakfast or a to-go bag, and items including hygiene products and, if available, hand warmers and clothing. Walden also noted that they've helped people get into rehabilitation services.

The local Help the Homeless organization is helping individuals get to the New Life warming center. Help the Homeless founder and president Jessica Lee noted that they'll help people get wherever they need to get help but right now, warmth has been the biggest priority.

"Pretty much everybody that we've encountered has wanted to utilize the New Life warming center, so we have been doing the transport in the mornings and the evenings," she said. "Our office has been buzzing with people. We've got an abundance of hats and gloves, coats, you name it. We've actually been doing great. The community has been wonderful and has been donating to us."

Lee said they transport about 10 people at a time to the warming center; of the 10-15 people a night who stay there, many of them are the same people, so there have likely been 20-something individuals who go and stay there in total. A bigger number comes to get clothes and warming items from Help the Homeless — about 60 per night, said Lee. And not all of them are necessarily unhoused.

"We serve people who are homeless and also at risk of homelessness," said Lee. "We'e got a lot of people that, maybe their heat went out, or maybe they didn't really feel comfortable, like their heaters couldn't keep up. So we've been taking some of them blankets and things of that nature."

She added of the potential for another cold blast through this weekend, "We're fully equipped to keep going. We've got plenty of warm weather supplies, and we're good to go."

Lee described the partnership between New Life and Help the Homeless as "wonderful," and said that her organization tries to offer food and assistance at the warming center as needed.

Ultimately, Walden would prefer New Life not host the warming center in the gym — not because she doesn't want to help meet the need but because what is currently being used is not ideal. Still, until that need is met, she and other volunteers are doing what they can to make this winter a little less brutal for the less fortunate.

"We're still looking for a building. That's our end goal, to have a different location that would be better suited," said Walden. "Unfortunately, that's a big roadblock because you tell people what your'e gonna use it for and nobody really wants that."