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Warming Place faces uncertain future

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD "Fred" is sitting in the Warming Place on July 1. The homeless man is a former mental health professional and over the roar of the fans moving the air around the former basketball court, he points over to another homeless man who is arranging his bed for the evening's stay at the shelter.

"He's number eight," "Fred" said, referring to his place in line for a housing voucher. "Fred" who didn't want to use his real name or have his photograph taken said he is number 46. The homeless man is one of nearly a full house on the summer evening and he is clearly worried about what will happen if the Warming Place closes. He doesn't want to go to The Friends of the Homeless shelter on Worthington Street nor does he want to spend his nights at the Springfield Rescue Mission's shelter on Taylor Street that was recently re-opened.

The Warming Place, operated by the Open Pantry, lost its court bid to remain open at its location at the former York Street Jail last week. Noonan told Reminder Publications on July 9 that he was meeting with Geraldine McCafferty, deputy director of homeless and special-needs housing on "transitional issues."

There is no funding for the new location of the Warming Place, Noonan said. He said the agency is considering another downtown location.

It was the latest development in the city's on-going effort to address the city's homeless problem by providing permanent housing and support services to homeless residents, and what appears to be a turf battle over the roles which agencies will play in the city's plan.

Noonan has charged the city is trying to put the agency out of the single shelter business.

The leaders of the "Housing First" effort announced June 28 that only 30 percent of the 140 apartments required to address the homelessness need have been made available. While gathered in the first floor dormitory area of the Springfield Rescue Mission's shelter, Robert Schwarz, the chair of the implementation committee, announced "Plan B": the creation of more shelter space with the opening of the Rescue Mission shelter during the summer and the creation of more beds in the basement and dining area of the Friends of the Homeless shelter.

Schwarz said there would be "no reduction in shelter capacity."

Schwarz said that by the end of the summer, the Housing First committee expects to meet its goal of having 60 percent of needed apartments ready for occupancy.

The Warming Place was not part of this plan, however. Kevin Noonan, the agency's executive director, explained to Reminder Publications, the Warming Place lost its state contract to provide shelter services when the city declined to issue an occupancy program for the York Street Jail facility. Linda Randall, manager of the Warming Place, said the state rolls over contracts such as these to vendors in good-standing, but because the Open Pantry could not promise 85 beds due to the lack of an occupancy permit, state officials put the contract out to bid.

That contract went to the Friends of the Homeless although Noonan said the Friends facility could not provide the 85 beds stipulated by the contract. Instead it has 52 beds.

The Rescue Mission shelter normally only open in winter has 35 beds, but is open only to men. It cannot receive state funding because it is run by a religious organization. For the unexpected summer season, the Housing First committee is seeking donations of $60,000 to run the shelter.

The city's plan was that shelter space, such as provided by the Warming Place, would be increasingly unnecessary as homeless people were taken off of the street and placed in permanent housing. Noonan has long argued that, while he supports the Housing First concept, there will always be a need for temporary shelters.

The city wants to demolish the jail in order to develop the river front property. David Panagore, the head of economic development for the city, said on June 28 the shelter needed to be out of the jail by mid-July in order to begin the bidding process for the demolition. A contract should be issued Aug. 3.

At the press conference on June 28, Mayor Charles Ryan said there have been "constant meetings to encourage the Open Pantry to play a significant role" in the city's new strategy. Ryan specifically mentioned a new shelter facility at "Extract Place" that would be operated by the Open Pantry. Ryan said the new facility would hopefully be open by Nov. 1.

Noonan and Randall both said the Extract Place shelter is dead at this point. They both said the agency had been working to consolidate its offices and a shelter and add apartments for the homeless at the building off of Worthington Street and the city had given the agency a $10,000 planning grant. Deadlines and conditions about the sale of the building, however, made it impossible for the agency to move forward.

Back at the Warming Place, "Fred" offered his perspective on the Housing First efforts to date: "The process is not only flawed, but careless."